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The Lonely “Lady” of the Bosporus

The Lonely “Lady” of the Bosporus

The Lonely “Lady” of the Bosporus


LIKE a mother standing in the doorway of her house waiting for the return of her loved ones, she has stood lonely and forlorn for hundreds of years at the point where the Bosporus Strait runs into the Sea of Marmara. (See map.) The fast-running currents make the crashing of waves against the rocky shore resemble lace around the bottom of her skirts. From her vantage point here, this “lady”​—the Maiden’s Tower—​has silently witnessed the passage of history.

Over the centuries she has seen the sinking of ships, the rapacity of armies in blood-drenched conflicts, and the frivolities of palace amusements. Truly, when Istanbul is mentioned, the first thing that comes to the minds of many is this tower, so symbolic of the old city.

It is difficult to describe the attraction the tower has for so many people. Every evening as the sun sets, there is always someone on the Asian shore gazing across the water at the Maiden’s Tower with the silhouetted city of Istanbul as its backdrop. Perhaps there is an old man standing there remembering the events of his life or a young man​—so full of hope—​dreaming about what the future holds for him. Or maybe a woman who has lost her loved ones is thinking that the tower looks as lonely as she feels. Turkish poet Sunay Akın, who frequently muses about the tower in his writings, once said: “The worst view of Istanbul is from the Maiden’s Tower because then the beauty of the Maiden’s Tower is missing.”

Tracing the history of the tower is not easy. In fact, the more one delves into the past of this “lady” of the Bosporus, the more her past seems hidden in a shroud of tradition and legend.

Early History of the Island

The earliest known facts concern, not the tower, but rather the rocks upon which it is built. In 411 B.C.E., during the wars between Athens and Sparta, Byzantium (now Istanbul) sided with the Spartans. Thus, the European side of the Bosporus went to Sparta, and the Asian side to Athens. Eventually, Sparta lost out to Athens, but for the time being, Athens took no further action against Byzantium, preferring instead merely to take control of the Bosporus Strait and benefit from the taxes levied on vessels sailing through it. It is thought that the Athenian general and politician Alcibiades built a tax station on the rocks. However, no mention is made of a tower existing there at that time.

Some years later Byzantium itself came under the sovereignty of Athens. Fearing threats from King Philip II of Macedonia, Athens sent 40 war galleys to reinforce its position in Byzantium. The commander of the fleet, Admiral Hares, had his wife accompany him, but she later took ill and died in Chrysopolis (Üsküdar). Admiral Hares constructed an altar to his wife, and the story is that it was erected on the rocky islet where the Maiden’s Tower came to be built.

How Has the Tower Survived?

According to The Book of the Maiden’s Tower, the first time something resembling a tower was built on the rocks was during the reign of Manuel I Comnenus (1143-80), when a small fortresslike structure armed with cannons was built.

After Istanbul was conquered in 1453, the small fort was preserved, and it continued to be used for military purposes. Later a wooden lighthouse, which faced the Sea of Marmara, was added. Following the conquest of Istanbul, the tower stood watch while more of the pages of the history of mankind were being written in blood​—vessels in the Bosporus met in battle, and sword-wielding soldiers fought hand to hand. Cargo boats loaded with gunpowder and anything that would burn were turned against one another.

Over the years the tower suffered from the ravages of earthquakes and fires until finally in 1720, it was virtually destroyed by fire. Damat Ibrahim Pasha then rebuilt the tower in stone, adding a many-windowed turret overlaid with lead. In 1829 the tower was used as a quarantine hospital during an outbreak of cholera. Shortly afterward, the last major repairs were carried out during the rule of Mahmud II in 1832. In 1857 the Lighthouse Board took over the tower, and a French company was commissioned to turn the tower into a functional lighthouse, which was fully automated in 1920. The tower remained in use as a lighthouse for almost a hundred years.

During Ottoman times the tower was mostly used as a lighthouse to show the way at night; however, it was also used by day when the weather was foggy. In stormy weather small boats would seek safety by tying up to the tower to escape being swept away in the waves. Cannons were fired from the tower during official celebrations.

Every now and then, the Ottoman Palace used the tower differently. Government officials being sent into exile or facing execution were held in the tower as a way station before going off on their long journey or being sent to their death.

Its Role Keeps Changing

After 1923, official use of the tower was discontinued, and it functioned only as a lighthouse. During the difficult years of World War II, the tower was repaired and the internal structure strengthened with concrete. Following 1965, when the tower was handed over to the navy, it was used for a time as a military communications center. Then, during the latter half of the 20th century, international maritime traffic through the Bosporus intensified, with more and bigger ships navigating the Strait. With the coming of the big ships, the era of quiet solitude for the Maiden’s Tower ended. After 1983 the tower was used by the Turkish Maritime Authority as an intermediate control point for directing the flow of traffic through the Strait.

Hardly had 1989 started when an extraordinary news item once more riveted attention on the “lady” of the Bosporus. “Maiden’s Tower Poisoned,” read the headline on a report, which claimed that cyanide, used for fumigating vermin-infested vessels in shipyards, was being stored in the tower. Previously kept in a recently demolished facility at the docks, the deadly poison was being stored in the tower “because there was nowhere else to put it.” Thus the lonely “lady” of the Bosporus came to be poisoned. More seriously, noted the report, had there been an explosion of that cyanide gas, it would have been disastrous for Istanbul. After eight months of high exposure in the press and on television, the situation was finally resolved when the containers of cyanide were moved to another location.

It was hardly surprising when in May 1992 a group of young poets went out to the Maiden’s Tower and announced, with the support of the mayor, that they wanted the virtually abandoned tower to be made into a cultural center. After all, for hundreds of years it had been an inspiration to countless poets and writers. For a short while thereafter, the tower was alive with exhibitions of art and photography, and a number of concerts were held there. For this short period, the tower was declared a “republic of verse.”

The Maiden’s Tower Today

With a view to opening the tower to visitors, extensive repairs were made in 1999. Following this, announcement was made that one year later, as part of a tourism project, it would be opened as a restaurant and cultural center. Today a restaurant, a café and bar, an observation deck, and a souvenir shop are open to visitors and tourists. Small boats provide transportation from various boarding points around Istanbul.

Admittedly, these commercial restorations have not been well received by many people. Still, the Maiden’s Tower has lost little, if any, of its charm. If your travels ever take you to Istanbul, be sure to visit the Maiden’s Tower. You might enjoy sitting in one of the many tea gardens on the Asian side of Istanbul, where, as you sip your tea, you can appreciate the matchless vistas of the Bosporus and the Maiden’s Tower. Then, just for a moment or two, perhaps you can recall the long history of this gracious “lady” of the Bosporus.

[Maps on page 25]

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Bosporus Strait


[Picture on page 25]

Lithograph, 19th century

[Picture on page 26]


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Observation deck