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  • Writer's pictureJoel Butler, MA

A Brief History of the Golden Horn in Istanbul

What is the Golden Horn?

The Golden Horn is a natural estuary and now a major urban waterway criss-crossed by bridges.

Golden Horn

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Golden Horn History

It’s said that the Persian general Megabazus remarked in the 6th century BC that the people of the town that would become known as Chalcedon to the Greeks, and Kadıköy in modern Istanbul, must have been blind. Why else would they come to the decision to settle on the southeast coast of the Bosphorus Strait, when the most perfect strategic position for a city awaited directly opposite? The rocky outcrop, with the Sea of Marmara to its south, the mouth of the Bosphorus to its east, and the yawning inlet of the Golden Horn to the north, was not only defensible, but perfectly placed to control the seas around it as well.

The primary advantage of the Golden Horn has always been that it forms a natural deep-water harbour, with direct access to the Greater Mediterranean Sea to the south (the Sea of Marmara and the Aegean) and the Black Sea to the north (via the Bosphorus). Evidence of ports existing on the site dates back nearly 3,000 years to the 7th century BC, hence Megabazus’ commentary. It formed the foremost naval base of the Eastern Roman Empire, and the presence of the harbour and its connections was the primary reasoning behind the founding of the town of Byzantium on the Horn and its refoundation as the city of Constantinople. Urban development on both sides of the river also allowed for the harbour to be closed completely to hostile ships. A typical strategy employed by the rulers of Constantinople was to fix a great chain to towers on either side of the estuary, blocking enemies from entering. This was famously circumvented by Mehmed II the Conqueror in 1453, who towed his ships over greased logs past the neutral Genoese colony on the north bank of the Golden Horn.

The modern-day Golden Horn is an immensely busy urban waterway, which has been a part of the cultural life of Istanbul for centuries. It has appeared in innumerable artworks and amassed references across literature and music. Throughout the industrial period of the late 19th and 20th centuries, the water became polluted with waste from factories and vessels, however conservation efforts have succeeded in cleaning the water and restoring some of the wildlife.

It’s a tourist staple of any visit to Istanbul to cross the Galata Bridge, watch people fishing, and buy a fresh fish sandwich. Though the Galata Bridge, with its lower deck of restaurants, is the most evident and famous of the bridges over the Golden Horn, there is also a metro bridge, the Atatürk Bridge, and the Haliç Bridge which carries motorway traffic. The first bridging of the Golden Horn was achieved during the reign of Justinian at the Theodosian Walls. Leonardo da Vinci also produced a plan for a single-span bridge over the Golden Horn as a commission for Sultan Bayezid II in 1502. Though harbours still exist along the banks of the Golden Horn, much of its shoreline is made up of parkland for promenading, and ferries also flit back and forth across the water.

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