The Romans built more than 20 columns to protect the city against everything from flies to earthquakes. A few of them are still standing today.
By Joshua Bruce Allen
Istanbul is a city whose memories stretch far into the past, through the ages of Islam and Christianity back to the ancient religions. The power of the Evil Eye, known in Turkish as nazar, is one example of how these traditions live on. But the Romans also created a complex and intriguing system to protect the imperial city – these are the magic talismans of Istanbul.
We know about these talismans mainly from the writings of Evliya Çelebi, who travelled through Europe, North Africa, the Arab lands, and Anatolia in the 17th century. As a religious Muslim, he stressed that the old talismans had lost their powers with the arrival of Islam. Explaining the four angels under the dome of the Hagia Sophia, Çelebi writes, “Before the birth of the Prophet these angels used to speak, and gave notice of all the dangers that threatened the Empire and the city of Istanbul, but since his highness (Mohammed) appeared all talismans have ceased to act.” Whatever he believed about the talismans, Çelebi offered colorful descriptions of the objects and their functions.
There were originally at least 27 talismans in Istanbul, though earthquakes and war had destroyed many of them before the Ottomans arrived. Today we know the history of 15 talismans from the Roman era, some of which we can still visit on the streets of Istanbul.
Close to the obelisks in the old hippodrome of Sultanahmet, you will find a short bronze column shaped like a spiral. This is the Serpent Column, so called because it used to be topped with three bronze snake heads. The only surviving head is now on display at the Istanbul Archaeological Museums. It is fascinating to think that this column is even older than the Hagia Sophia or Christianity itself, dating back to at least 478 BC. The column was made in Delphi from the melted shields of Persian soldiers defeated at the Battle of Plataea. In the original design, the three snakes supported a golden bowl where the Greeks made sacrifices to their gods. Emperor Constantine I moved the column to Constantinople around 700 years later. Ottoman miniatures from the 16th century show that the three heads were still attached at that time – it is likely that the snakes simply fell off from old age. According to Eliya Çelebi, this talisman protected the city from snakes, centipedes, and scorpions.
Also in the Sultanahmet hippodrome is the Walled Obelisk, also called the Milyobar. This is the last column in the square if you walk from Hagia Sophia towards Sultanahmet Mosque. Named after Constantine VII, the obelisk used to be covered in gilded plaques showing military victories. According to Evliya Çelebi’s slightly unbelievable account, “During the reign of Constantine, sultans attached to him would send him precious stones according to the number of castles and cities they controlled. Those were piled at the center of Atmeydanı like a mountain and it was estimated that three times 100,000 pieces of stones were accumulated.” It is also reported that the Walled Obelisk supported a powerful magnet designed to protect the city against earthquakes.
Going west from Sultanahmet along the main road known as Divanyolu, the first tram stop is Çemberlitaş. This name comes from the Çemberlitaş column, which means “ringed stone.” Its given name is the Column of Constantine. This monument has great importance for Istanbul – it was built to declare Constantinople’s new status as capital of the Roman Empire. A statue of a bird on top of the column is said to have had magical powers. When the city was hungry, the statue would call real birds to bring olives for the population to eat. Later the bird was replaced with a statue of Constantine holding a piece of the True Cross from Palestine.
The Column of Arcadius provided a slightly more drastic solution to famine. Located farther west from Sultanahmet in Cerrahpaşa, only the huge base of red granite still stands today. The shaft of this column was made of a greenish mineral called serpentine, carved with images of Arcadius’ victory against the Goths. Spiral stairs led upwards inside the column to the cell of a stylite monk, who lived an ascetic life far away from the normal citizens below. There was also a statue of a fairy on the column. Despite its innocent face, the fairy’s screams would kill thousands of birds. The starving population supposedly collected these birds to eat.
The last major talisman is a little to the north of Cerrahpaşa, near Fatih Mosque. This column has an elegant shaft and ornate Corinthian capital, which suits its Turkish name of Kıztaşı (the girl’s column). The original name is the Column of Marcian. The real reason for the Turkish name is a relief of the goddess Nike on the column’s base. It is believed that the sarcophagus of an emperor’s daughter once topped the column. For this reason, it is said that young fiancées who hug the column will be protected from harm before marriage.
Like a snake shedding its skin to grow, as Istanbul moves forward it loses pieces of its fascinating past. Blachernae Palace used to have a statue of a demon that produced miraculous fire once a year. The construction of the Beyazıt Hamamı destroyed a column that protected the city from plague. The talismans in the Cistern of Saint Mocius in Altımermer collapsed during earthquakes. We can’t bring these structures back, but we can appreciate the ones that remain and retell their incredible stories.