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  • Writer's pictureTerry Richardson

A Brief History of Maiden's Tower in Istanbul

What is Maiden's Tower?

Maiden's Tower is a small tower strategically located on an islet in the Bosphorus, originally used to control the passage of ships through the strait.

Maiden's Tower

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Maiden's Tower History

Also known as Leander’s Tower, the Maiden’s Tower – a literal translation of its Turkish name, Kız Kulesi – was first built by the Athenian commander Alcibiades in the 5th century BC. During the Peloponnesian War, fought between the two Greek superpowers of the day, Athens and Sparta, Byzantium (as Istanbul was then known) had broken away from Athenian control and allied itself with Sparta. Following a lengthy siege in 408 BC, Alcibiades subdued the city and had a wooden tower built, so as to safeguard the free passage of ships carrying essential grain and other foodstuffs from the Black Sea to Athens.

In 1110 the Byzantine Emperor Alexius Comnenus ordered the tower to be rebuilt. A chain was stretched between the islet and the mainland on the European side of the Bosphorus, and a sea wall constructed, linking the tower to the Asian shore just 200 metres away. This meant all ships must seek permission for onward passage and pay customs duty before the chain was lowered. It wasn’t until the Ottoman period that, following a substantial rebuild, it was used as a lighthouse, to help ships navigate the narrow and often treacherous waters of the strait. Destroyed then rebuilt following an earthquake in 1509 and again after a fire two hundred years later, the tower assumed its current appearance in the 19th century, when Sultan Mahmud II had it renovated and a Baroque-style roof was added.

Easily visible from many parts of the city yet impossible for the average person to reach in times gone by, the island tower inevitably features in many stories, mostly apocryphal. In one it is the home of Hero, priestess of Aphrodite, the goddess of love. Legend has it that every night she would light a lamp in the tower as a signal for her lover Leander to swim across from the mainland and join her. One fateful night a storm extinguished the light and poor Leander drowned beneath the treacherous waves, leaving Hero so distraught she leapt to her death from the tower. The fact that in Greek mythology the scene of the tale was another strait entirely, the Hellespont (or Dardanelles), many miles away across the Sea of Marmara, has not been allowed to get in the way of a good story!

In another tale, it was predicted by a fortune teller that an Ottoman princess would die of a snake bite on her 18th birthday. In order to escape this fate, she was sent to live on the islet by her doting father, to keep her out of harm’s way. Unfortunately for the girl, on a birthday visit to her, the sultan brought her a basket of fruit in which a snake had secreted itself. Inevitably, the doomed princess was bitten and died as prophesied.

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