Sunday, November 21, 2010

City Walls

When we first arrived in Istanbul, our drive from the airport took us along the old city walls. In that strange, post-flight, time-zone-less state, we stared vacantly out of the car window and watched miles of this massive, crumbling pink-stone wall slide past. The surrounds of most international airports usually provide a dismal first look at a city, and certainly Istanbul has its share of convention centers and urban sprawl. But our long look from the highway at these ancient city walls was very affecting. 

Built by Constantine, the original city walls completely encircled Constantinople, stretching in an arch from the Sea of Mamara to the Halic (Golden Horn,) and all along the coasts. Our house, in the Fener neighborhood, would have stood outside of this original boundry. By the 5th century, the city had expanded, and new walls were built further out. Emperor Theodosius II built them as a double line, the outer walls containing 185 towers and abutting a wide moat, the inner walls sectioning off more than fifty feet of no man’s land. 

The ruins left today are the outer walls and towers. An easy walk from Chora Church brought us up against them. Perilously narrow, long stone stairs lead up to the top of the ruins in many places along the walls. We ascended and got a view of the city on all sides, Istanbul proper having expanded again beyond the boundaries of the walls. Back on the ground, we walked along the walls toward the Halic. Far from being a guarded museum site, there are markets, parks and sport fields along them. Judging by the occasional graffiti, they also serve as a night time hang out. 

We came to the ruins of a Byzantine Palace that was built into the walls in the late thirteenth century. Supposedly undergoing a restoration, we wandered around the edges looking for a way in. Some teenagers lead us to a locked gate, produced a key, and we stepped inside the grassy interior. After the Ottoman conquest, the palace was reduced to a stable for the Sultan’s menagerie. It was later a brothel, then a pottery workshop, then a poorhouse. Only the barest bones of the architecture are left. We declined an offer from our over-eager guides to scramble up a plank spanning a deep gully for a loftier view, and were extorted a bit as we left. This area is extremely poor. As we walked through it, following a guide book tour to various things-that-used-to-be, we were a little surprised by just how poor. 

One interesting bit from the guidebook was that many of the houses near the old wall used stones from the now-nonexistent inner wall for their construction. Houses were often built right against the outer wall, saving time and materials, and, in the long run, helping to maintain and preserve the wall. 

It was just a short walk downhill to reach Balat, the neighborhood adjacent to Fener, and home to our studios. It is hard to fathom, especially coming from a city (and a country) whose early history dates back only a few hundred years, that we had stood atop a piece of history dating back nearly sixteen-hundred years.

On top of the old city walls.

Map depicting the location of the fifth-century walls. 

Byzantine palace ruin

Looking from the neighborhood to the ruins of the wall

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