The Walls of İstanbul

The Walls of İstanbul

Throughout history, the city walls of İstanbul were the most important element to ensure the long life of İstanbul, desired to be captured by the whole world.

The magnificence and resistance of the city walls made İstanbul one of the most important cities of the Middle Ages. While many important settlements in the Mediterranean have lost their importance after the invasions, vanishing without leaving a trace, İstanbul has challenged disasters and time thanks to its legendary defense system. These walls, which are one of the most important monuments of İstanbul’s past and character, have been renewed constantly over the years; and with every addition to their surroundings, they have either enriched or ruined. No matter what they have witnessed, they still exist in the city and in the lives of people. They were built with such a great passion that they did not suffer much from the sieges and wars. Even if the earthquakes, people, and weather conditions damaged them, they were coddled at every age.

In the list of UNESCO

The walls of İstanbul may seem to be a historic decoration today, but those walls that take us to the past of the city have a deeper meaning behind them. The monumental and social value of the city walls comes out in many sources, from the memories of travelers to literary works. The walls covering a wider area over the centuries settled in the middle of the city, while they used to draw the city borders once. The city walls, which had been included in the UNESCO’s ‘World Architectural Heritage’ list, were called many names as the occupants of the city kept changing in time. During the first years of their construction, they came into existence with houses, people, gardens, cisterns, travelers and animals; they still continue their existence today.

The resistance of the city

2700 years ago, the Greek colonists settled in present-day Sarayburnu and began to build the first fortifications of the city of Byzantion, named after Byzas, between Sirkeci and Sarayburnu. Unfortunately, there are no signs today from the walls of Byzas that climb up the hill and go down from Gülhane. This is the first of the three main periods of the construction of the Marmara walls. The city walls that we see today were built by the governor of the Emperor Theodosius, Anthemius, at the beginning of the 5th century. Towers with a height of 13-15 meters every 20 meters support the walls, which are about 5 meters thick. There are 96 towers on the walls. Dentils on the tower and city walls are an important defense method. The walls, referred to as Theodosius, have been besieged 28 times over a period of 1000 years and were defeated only twice; during the Latin invasion of 1204 and the Ottoman conquest of 1453. During the Byzantine period, earthquakes, winds, and southwesters caused destruction in the coastal walls. Moreover, the ice masses coming from the Black Sea caused them to collapse by hitting the walls in the toughest winters. Thanks to the inscriptions on the walls and towers, we can learn about the different construction techniques and periods related to the repairs after these events. We know that the teams participating in the horse races at the racetrack or in other words the supporters of the parties participated in the repair and construction of the walls.

More concrete in each period

In the middle of the 5th century, Emperor Constantine not only repaired the walls in order to reinforce the defense but also had a second wall built in front of them. His concern was the attacks of the Western Huns that were fearful in the Balkans. The coastal walls that were built on the seaside were designed according to a defense principle. Since the land between the walls and the sea could be a point where the attackers of the city could hold, the city walls were taken forward and the threat was tried to be eliminated. The walls, which had moved several meters at different points in different periods starting from Sarayburnu, stand out clearly today. The Emperor did not stop there; he had a trench made about 20 meters wide and 10 meters deep in front of this wall. This trench contributed to the defense by making access to the city more difficult. Some sources claim that there was water in the trench, while some other sources argue that trenches without water will strengthen the defense much better. In attacks, the attackers fill the trenches with everything they can find, and the defenders of the city try to evacuate them. There were 96 towers on the walls of Theodosius which stretched from the Mermer Tower, which was accepted as the end of the Marmara walls, to the Tekfur Palace. Some of the towers had frescoes of saints and patronesses for spiritual protection.

Gates of victory

There used to be many gates and passageways on the Marmara walls. These gates were blocked by brick walls when there was an attack to the city because they were the weakest points of the defense. When the threat was over, the blocked gates were to be opened again at the same place or near. Today many district names known as Yenikapı or Kumkapı were in fact the names of the gates which were blocked during attacks or destroyed. The gates were built between the two large towers to strengthen the weakest points of the defense after the bronze age. This was also allowing a spectacular entrance. The Golden Gate (Altın Kapı), which was left within the Yedikule Hisarı (citadel) in the Byzantine period, was the most magnificent and prestigious gate of the city. Emperors used to leave the city through this gate and use it when they were coming back. Instead of this gate, which lost its significance during the Ottoman period, sultans used to do their exits and entrances to the city through the Edirne Kapı (gate). There were customs at this point, which used to be counted as the main gate of the city. This is why the district located behind this gate is still called as Karagümrük (Darkcustoms).

In life

The walls used to stretch among the fields, green lawns, cemeteries, and woods during the Byzantine period. It is possible to see the Haliç (Golden Horn) and the Marmara Sea form the highest points of the walls. The walls become more crowded during the Ottoman period, being included in the social life. They were intertwined with mosques, churches, synagogues, social complexes, and neighborhoods. The Golden Horn walls were the weakest and the least preserved section of the İstanbul walls.

Like a trench

One of the major attacks that the Walls witnessed was organized by Atilla’s Hun cavalry, which came up to Küçükçekmece in 447 with a large army. Avar and the Bulgarian Khans, allied with the Sassanid Empire, surrounded the city. The attacks of the Avars in 626 were so effective that the date of the Avar armies’ retreat is celebrated as a holiday in the Orthodox churches. It is known that the Avars used many different siege tools in this siege. Although they were lost after the restorations, the granite and marble cannon balls found give us the necessary tips. The last siege of the Arabs was the campaign between the years of  715 and 717. The Russians organized attacks in 864, 904 and 936, and the Hungarians in 959, none of which reached the goal. The walls of İstanbul gave into the Ottoman conquest of Fatih Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror in 1453, taking a step into another period.