Friday, November 18, 2011

Walking İstanbul’s land walls from Mermerkule to Ayvansaray

The polygonal towers at Ayvansaray
For many visitors to İstanbul the first glimpse they get of the historic city is from a fast-moving vehicle as their taxi races through the gap in the great Theodosian Land Walls that was made in the 1950s when the Sahil Yolu (Coast Road, later renamed Kennedy Caddesi) was created.
If they’re lucky, the lights at Mermerkule will be red and they will be given a moment to soak up the splendor of those magnificent, soaring walls. All too often, though, the lights are green and that glimpse will be merely fleeting.

The walls we see today are the battered remnants of those that confronted Sultan Mehmed II on May 29, 1453, the fateful day on which his army finally forced its way through them to capture the old Constantinople for the Ottomans. Those walls were actually the fourth set built around the city, each set having migrated slightly further west until eventually Constantinople’s limits were set at a line stretching from Mermerkule on the Sea of Marmara to Ayvansaray on the Golden Horn. Walls also ran alongside the Sea of Marmara and the Golden Horn. They were intended to defend the city from sea-borne assault but didn’t need to be as lofty or complex as the Land Walls, not least because of the chain that used to be thrown across the Golden Horn to prevent enemy ships entering it. In their entirety, the walls were a military masterpiece, breached only twice, first when the soldiers of the Fourth Crusade forced their way through the Sea Walls in 1204 and then again, decisively, in 1453 when Sultan Mehmed II broke through the Land Walls to seize the Byzantine stronghold, thereby earning himself the nickname “the Conqueror.”

Impressive as they still look today, the Land Walls are now but a shadow of their former selves. In their late Byzantine heyday there were actually two separate sets of walls with a road running between them and a 10-meter-deep moat in front. Nearly 200 towers rose above them and there were a string of gates, mostly named after the destinations of the roads passing through them. Today a few of the towers still stand to their original height, especially at the Ayvansaray end. Elsewhere, however, they have been laid low by time, earthquakes and stone-scavengers.

Despite their physical conspicuousness and historic significance, the Land Walls are something of a missed opportunity when it comes to tourism. Sections of the Sea Walls were restored in 1953 to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Ottoman conquest. Then in the 1980s work began on restoring parts of the Land Walls, work that has continued into the 21st century with results that have tended to attract more brickbats than bouquets. All too often “restoration” has consisted of rapid rebuilding in a generic medieval-castle manner that has left some stretches such as the area around Belgradkapı looking as if they were built yesterday rather than 15 centuries ago. More surprisingly, there is no clear path along the walls, nor yet any attempt at providing interpretation. Extraordinary as it may seem, there are not even any signs identifying the various gates and towers. Still, if you have a day up your sleeve and fancy a straightforward six-and-a-half-kilometer walk, it’s fun to stroll beside the walls and see what you can discover along the way.

It makes sense to kick off your walk at the Sea of Marmara end so that for most of the way you’ll be walking downhill. There are two obvious starting points: Mermerkule (Marble Tower), where buses from Eminönü stop, or Yedikule (Seven Towers), where there’s a handy station on the suburban train line from Cankurtaran (Sultanahmet). Perfectionists will want to start at Mermerkule where the Land Walls joined the Sea Walls, although the eponymous marble tower whose ground floor was once washed by the sea now stands isolated on reclaimed land on the far side of busy Kennedy Caddesi. A small peace park has been laid out in the lee of the Land Walls, but you’ll have to dodge around a petrol station and under the railway line to get to Yedikule.

Yedikule epitomizes the wasted opportunity that is the walls. In England the Tower of London is a massive tourist attraction, pulling in thousands upon thousands of paying visitors who love to dwell on gory stories of the murders and executions that took place within its walls. Yedikule’s history is no less colorful and stretches right back to Byzantine days when the Porta Aurea (Golden Gate) formed the centerpiece of a triumphal arch through which the emperors would return to the city after military victories. Long since bricked up, the Golden Gate survives as a ghostly presence in the walls of the fortress but nothing is made of its history, nor yet of the stories of the many prisoners who languished here right into the 19th century. Just think what could be made of the tale of poor Genç Osman (Young Osman), the 17-year-old sultan who was murdered here in 1622, with a little more marketing savvy.
As you head north along the walls you may be surprised to discover that what was once the moat is now full of lush fruit and vegetable gardens, the produce from which goes on sale at roadside stalls.
This is true even around Belgradkapı, where the gate and the towers flanking it have been completely rebuilt and now serve as the focal point for annual reenactments of the moment when the Ottomans finally smashed their way into Constantinople with a little help from a giant Hungarian-made cannon called Urban.

At Topkapı (Cannon Gate) there’s a second significant gap in the walls where busy Vatan Caddesi was pushed through them in the 1950s. Here in the newly landscaped park outside the walls you’ll find the 1453 Panorama Museum, worth visiting to inspect its 360-degree sound and light evocation of the scenes on that late May day. Then just inside the walls you can pause to refuel on a very reasonably priced lunch of köfte, rice and chips at the Fatih Sosyal Tesisleri.

Beyond Topkapı on the way to Edirnekapı the walls conveniently conceal the controversial redevelopment of Sulukule, once famous for its gypsy entertainers. Up to this point it’s almost impossible to get lost as the main road runs parallel with the walls. Past Edirnekapı, however, the road splits and you’ll find yourself dog-legging around the remains of Tekfur Sarayı, an imposing brick building that may once have formed part of the Blachernae palace complex but later went on to house a famous pottery. Come here over the weekend and you’ll be able to eye up the pigeons on sale at the market in the shadow of the walls.

Past Eğrikapı (Crooked Gate) you really need to duck back inside the walls unless you want to find yourself having to slither down an embankment and jump over a drainage channel to reconnect with them as they near Ayvansaray. It’s here, though, that you’ll see the series of magnificent polygonal towers that were added in the 11th century when the emperors moved home from the Great Palace in what is now Sultanahmet to Blachernae on the Golden Horn. Sadly, very little remains of that palace apart from the Dungeons of Anemas, right up against the walls, which are undergoing extensive restoration.

If you’ve walked all the way from Mermerkule, you’ll probably be pleased to see the pleasant park that abuts the walls at Ayvansaray and which is always awash with picnicking families on summer Sundays. Down at the water you can pick up a ferry from Ayvansaray to run you back along the Golden Horn to Eminönü. Alternatively, there are frequent buses to Eminönü or Taksim. These run alongside the battered old Sea Walls, but by now you’ll probably be too tired to care.



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