Walking Istanbul's old city walls

Walking Istanbul's old city walls

Rhiannon J Davies
August 28, 2013
  • Balıklı Church | Photo by Elif Savari Kızıl
  • Balıklı Church | Photo by Elif Savari Kızıl
  • Photo by Elif Savari Kızıl
  • Photo by Elif Savari Kızıl
  • Photo by Elif Savari Kızıl
  • Chora Museum | Photo by Elif Savari Kızıl
  • Chora Museum | Photo by Elif Savari Kızıl
  • Culture Park | Photo by Elif Savari Kızıl
  • Mihrimah Sultan Camii | Photo by Elif Savari Kızıl
  • Panorama 1453 Museum | Photo by Elif Savari Kızıl
  • Yedikule Fortress | Photo by Elif Savari Kızıl
  • Yedikule Fortress | Photo by Elif Savari Kızıl
  • Yedikule Fortress | Photo by Elif Savari Kızıl
  • Yedikule Fortress | Photo by Elif Savari Kızıl

People have long visited Istanbul with a romanticized notion of finding the fabled and forever clichéd city of clashing cultures, where Orient meets Occident, East meets West, and visitors meet hospitable locals. Sadly however, too many people find themselves both drawn and herded toward the obvious sightseeing hotspots. Although undoubtedly spectacular, these sights are often so crowded it can be tricky to picture them in all their historical glory, and the reality of life in modern Istanbul goes completely unseen. The jostling of elbows, whirring of oversized cameras, ‘checking in’ on smart phones, and touting of mass- produced memorabilia all detract from the imagined atmosphere.

Thankfully however, there are many sights, off the beaten-path permitting adventurous explorers a hint of something more. If you want to spend a day experiencing a completely different side of this incredible metropolis, then set your gaze no further than the borders of Istanbul’s old city. Running from Yedikule on the Marmara Sea to Ayvansaray on the Golden Horn are the city’s Byzantine-era Land Walls, arguably Istanbul’s most under-rated attraction.

Alongside these formidable fortifications, steeped in the weight of historical importance, modern Turkish life continues unbidden: grandmothers gossiping over the clicking of their knitting needles; children racing after a ball on the street; young mothers spreading their freshly washed carpets on the walls to dry; factories with unfathomable mechanical apparatus clattering away; a hawker selling syrup soaked sponges; traditional tea houses; and families tending their vegetable plots. All life is here, being played out in the shadow of these immense defenses.

The walls themselves date back to the reign of the Byzantine emperor Theodosius II, who reigned in the first half of the fifth century AD. They replaced a previous wall, built during the rule of Constantine the Great, to protect what was then the capital of the Byzantine Empire. As Constantinople was growing in population, in 413 a decision was made to move the line of the walls west to its present position. This new wall was badly damaged by an earthquake in 447 and had to be rebuilt quickly as Attila the Hun and his invading armies were on their way.

The defenses that were constructed after the 447 rebuild consisted of an inner wall, an outer wall, an outer terrace, and a moat. Along the length of the walls, at an average interval of 55 meters, were 96 towers keeping guard and making Constantinople even tougher to break into than this year’s Glastonbury Festival. In fact it wasn’t for a thousand years, until May 29 1453, that the walls were finally breached, during the famous siege led by Sultan Mehmet II. It was then that Constantinople changed hands and became the new capital of the Ottoman Empire.

Of course things have changed a little since then. Unable to withstand artillery bombardments and with no rampaging armies visible on the horizon, the walls have fallen into a state of disrepair aided by some severe earthquakes. Although they no longer fulfill their original defensive function, what remains makes for an excellent ‘guided’ walk through an area that was once the outskirts of Constantinople and today contains some of Istanbul’s least discovered neighborhoods and sights.

Whilst the total length of the walls is only around 6.5km, in order to take the time to visit the places we mention, it is recommended to spread it over two days. Unfortunately, there is no path running alongside the walls, and depending on construction works, traffic re-routing, or other distractions, your route may vary immensely from the one we took. Luckily the towering heights of the walls make for a convenient guide that can be followed as easily from a distance as close up.

It must also be noted that the walls have a reputation locally for attracting alcoholics and homeless people who sometimes make their beds in the convenient alcoves. It is therefore not advised to walk the walls alone, or after dark. If you want to avoid the slightly more unsavory sections of the walls, take the convenient T1 Tramvay to Topkapı, and walk the section between there and Ayvansaray. To find out more in-depth history about the walls, we recommend The Rough Guide to Istanbul by Terry Richardson or Strolling Through Istanbul by Hilary Sumner-Boyde & John Freely.


Yedikule Fortress

One of the easiest ways to reach the walls is to take the train from the historic Sirkeci Station to Yedikule. On leaving the station, head left, parallel to the tracks, until you reach the Yedikule Fortress. There’s little in the way of information, and sadly not enough has been done to make the most of this incredible place, but you are free to scramble up towers, and along the ramparts (taking care as there are no barriers). Incorporated into the fortress is the Golden Gate of Byzantium, which was originally a lavish structure, covered in gold plate and decorated with sculptures including four bronze elephants - all of which are long since gone. The gate, which was used for impressive state ceremonies, was blocked up when Sultan Mehmet II added three new towers to the four existing ones (that were part of the old land walls) to create the fortress.

The peaceful air in the fortress today belies its gruesome past. The towers served as a prison and an execution chamber as well as storage and offices for the state treasury. Foreign envoys were kept captive here and it’s still possible to find their desperate writings carved into the walls in half a dozen languages. Yet in springtime, cats gamble around the snapdragons and wild thyme that grow from the walls, carelessly disregarding the monumental history beneath their paws. From here you can get a good view of the line the walls follow, stretching in both directions south to their start at the Marble Gate on the Marmara Sea, and north towards their terminus on the Golden Horn.


Yedikule Gate to Mevlana Gate

Once you’ve dragged yourselves away from the view, head out of the fortress and turn left to find the path of the walls north. Here, Yedikule Kapı is the first of the gates that become useful markers along the walk. Although it is possible to walk along the top of the walls, you can also walk inside of them, crossing a construction site and passing several makeshift homes. On the outside of the walls there are well-tended vegetable plots, many in what once would have been the moat. On the weekend you can find stalls selling the produce freshly dug from these gardens.

Pass Belgrat Kapı, named after the artisans who were settled here by Süleyman The Magnificent after his capture of Belgrade in 1521 and the rather incongruous giant ice-skating rink, to reach the next gate: Silivri Kapı. The wall along this section has been renovated, which, although smartening their appearance, also seems an affront to the memory of the original. It’s worth taking a detour here and passing west through the gate, crossing the busy highway running parallel to the walls, and walking through the pretty leafy oasis of Muslim, Armenian and Greek cemeteries, before taking the right fork that leads to the Zoodochus Pege shrine.

Despite the many charms of Istanbul, anyone who has spent time in this city remembers lamenting the lack of nature’s proximity. While they are not exactly wild rolling plains, the serenity that this area exudes is about as close as you can get to nature’s peaceful forces. The church here (known locally as Balıklı Kilisesi) was built on the site of a natural spring in the Eastern Orthodox style. The tombs of bishops and patriarchs are covered in flowers, the air a heady blend of jasmine, honeysuckle, and burning incense. Head down the stairs through the courtyard to see the ‘Life-Giving Spring,’ with taps from which Pilgrims take the holy water.

Leaving the church, it is possible to retrace your steps to Silivri Kapi or follow the signs for the Mevlevihane, which lead you through the tranquil village-like neighborhood of Merkezefendi. Walk down the other side of the cemeteries, turn right when you reach the Dervish lodge, and head back up the hill to the Mevlana Kapı. Here a Latin inscription reads “By the command of Theodosius, Constantine erected these strong fortifications in less than two months. Scarcely could Pallas [Athena] herself built so strong a citadel in so short a time.” It marks the point where two different factions of laborers, working inwards from the north and south respectively, finished the walls’ reconstruction following the devastating earthquake in 447AD.


Mevlana Gate to Topkapı Gate

From Merkezefendi, follow the outside of the walls down a pleasant stretch of pavement into the pretty, landscaped park where the Panorama 1453 museum is situated. For those without vivid imaginations, this is a good place to see a 360 degree painted scene of the devastating siege of Constantinople. Unfortunately, the accompanying information is in Turkish and although it is impressive, it does not compare to the walls themselves.

You can then cross the overpass by the Topkapı tramvay and follow the signs for the ‘Türk Dünyası Kültür Merkezi,’ a small complex of huts that houses artifacts and traditional objects from eight Central Asian Turkic countries. Though not of great interest, it does help give further background to the Turkey we know today. For something really different, visit the Zinnet restaurant to sample Uyghur (Turkish/Chinese) fusion cuisine.

Situated behind the culture park is the Takkeci İbrahim Çavuş Camii. If there is someone there to unlock the door, you can step inside the peaceful and modest mosque, less lavish than most of its grander counterparts inside the land walls, but no less inspiring. The wooden dome (the last remaining of its kind in the city) and beautiful İznik tiles set it apart and lend it an understated beauty.


Topkapı Gate to Edirnekapı Gate

From the Takkeci İbrahim Çavuş Camii, walk through the park and cross the bridge over the tramvay, and highway at the Fetihkapı station. The overpass offers a striking view of the length of the walls and the Topkapı (Cannonball Gate). It also gives you a clear view of the dip in the land where the Lycus River once ran and is now the path of the busy Adnan Menderes highway. We re-entered the old city here and stumbled upon the Kara Ahmet Paşa Mosque, designed by the great architect Sinan, and built in 1554.

Cross the Adnan Menderes highway using the Ulubatlı/Topkapı metro station underpass and head back to the outside of the walls. Sulukule, on the inside of the walls, used to be the residence of a Romany Gypsy community whose ancestors settled there in the 11th century and was a notoriously lively part of town. Sadly their homes were cleared to make way for villas, the roofs of which can be seen poking over the top of the walls.

Here there are pathways through the undergrowth that are abloom with wild flowers in spring. Daisies, poppies and rustling grasses grow waist-high and make for a pleasant getaway from the main road, as one of Sinan’s finer mosques, the Mihrimah Sultan Mosque, comes into view. Re-enter the old city through the Edirnekapı Gate to step inside the mosque. The sheer scale of this work, the vast breadth of the stone columns, the stained-glass windows, and calligraphy and carvings, all make for an impressive spectacle. It is located on the highest point of the old city, the sixth of Istanbul’s famous seven hills. The steps that lead up onto the land walls near here make great vantage points for Golden Horn views.


Edirnekapı Gate to Ayvansaray Gate

After crossing Edirnekapı Rami Caddesi, take a right-turn down one of the side streets that lead you to the Kariye Museum. All of a sudden you’ll get the impression you’ve wandered back onto that beaten path you spent the last several kilometers firmly avoiding. The museum, formerly the Church of The Holy Savior of Chora Church, was originally built in the early fifth century but comprehensively rebuilt and renovated between the 11th and 14th centuries. Like other monuments in Istanbul, it underwent the transformation from church to mosque to museum, but thankfully retained the exquisite mosaics and frescoes that adorn its ceilings and walls and make it an unmissable stop. Located nearby is Asitane restaurant, known for its Ottoman-style dishes.

Head back up to the walls and pass the Teyfur Saray, a late 13th century red brick and white marble Byzantium Palace. Over the course of its lifespan it was used as a pottery workshop, a brothel, a zoo, a poorhouse for Jews, and a bottle factory. However, it is currently being renovated and for the moment, there isn’t much to be seen, so continue along the walls to Eğrikapı, the Crooked Gate. Following the walls gets a little tricky after this point, as they begin to bulge out to the West, but enjoy wandering the picturesque backstreets of Ayvansaray inside the walls, keeping one eye on their crumbling tops as a guide. Pass through a ramshackle selection of colorful houses, their gardens nestling snugly into the base of the walls, and follow the path around to emerge by the Ivaz Efendi Mosque, (which was closed when we visited) and the Byzantine prison, Anemas Zindanları (which was also undergoing restoration at the time of writing.)

The walls then run down the hill to the final gate, Ayvansaray Kapısı, bringing you out onto the Golden Horn and the end of the walk. The journey you’ve taken to get here is an educational voyage that twists and turns through centuries of history: victorious sultans and fallen empires, uprisings and executions, stunning masterpieces and remarkable ingenuity. Driving it all was a desire to protect and preserve this city that has never failed to capture the hearts of those that lay eyes on her. Along the way you see a side of Istanbul that you won’t find in Sultanahmet, and a way of life you won’t encounter on İstiklal Caddesi. Yet sadly with the current emphasis on new buildings, we fear that the walls may fall further into disrepair, so walk them now to discover the real unbeaten path.