A Brief History of the Maiden's Tower in Istanbul

Maidens Tower
Maiden's Tower | © michael clarke stuff/Flickr
Feride Yalav-Heckeroth

An iconic landmark on Istanbul’s skyline, the Maiden’s Tower has a rich history dating back to the fourth century, as well as a few legends adding to its fame. Located on a tiny islet off the Asian side of Istanbul, the tower has an intriguing background worth exploring.

History

Approximately 650 feet (200 meters) from the coast of Üsküdar, the Maiden’s Tower can be found on a small island at the southern entrance of the Bosphorus. Even though it’s not known exactly when the tower was built, the architectural style is synonymous with the era around 340 BCE. The landmark was previously known as Leandros and Damalis – named after the wife of Kharis, the king of Athens. During the Byzantine era, it was also known as “arcla,” which means “little castle.”

After the Ottoman Army conquered Constantinople, the tower was pulled down and replaced with a wooden structure, which was then destroyed by a fire in 1719. Istanbul’s head architect Nevşehirli Damat İbrahim Paşa rebuilt a stone version, and a glass kiosk and lead-covered dome were later added. Sultan Mahmut II’s signature was inscribed on marble by famous calligrapher Rakım Efendi and, by 1857, a lantern had been installed, although this was converted into an automatic lighting system by 1920.

Maiden’s Tower

The Maiden’s Tower served many different purposes throughout the centuries, including a merchantman tax collection center, a defense tower, and a lighthouse. During the 1830 cholera epidemic, it was transformed into a quarantine hospital and radio station. In 1964, the building was given over to the Ministry of Defence and then to the Maritime Enterprises 18 years later. Following a number of renovations, nowadays the tower is a visitor attraction, with a ground-floor restaurant offering traditional Turkish dishes alongside excellent views. There’s also a museum with free admission.

Legends

Apart from its history, the famous tower has also been the subject of a few legends. According to hearsay, a young man known as Leandros fell in love with a nun named Hero, who lived in the tower. Every night, Hero built a fire to guide her lover to the islet. However, one night, the fire was put out by a storm and Leandros lost his way and drowned in the Bosphorus. Hero was so overwhelmed by grief and loss, she committed suicide.

Another story goes that a soothsayer told the king his daughter would die of a snakebite. To protect her, the king constructed a castle out at sea where she could live safely; however, a snake hiding in a fruit basket made it onto the islet and the princess died after the reptile bit her.

Last but not least, the Battalgazi legend follows the tale of a man by that name, who was said to fall for the daughter of the tekfur (Christian ruler). The tekfur forbade their union and isolated his daughter at the tower, after which Battalgazi stormed the islet and abducted his love, riding away with her into the sunset. The saying, “He who takes the horse, crosses Üsküdar,” is said to derive from this story and means those who act without deliberating too long will reach their goals faster.

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