The old Istanbul wall lives!

The old Istanbul city wall dates from the fifth century and protected the city for almost a thousand years: it served as a defensive structure till 1453. Since then it has beencrumbling down and has never been restored to its old glory. Which doesn’t mean a walk along the wall – about 6.5 kilometres long – is not worthwhile!

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Along the old city wall the Constantinople of the past meets present-day Istanbul: the wall may be useless as a defensive structure, but it’s still very useful in today’s every-day life. On, around and even in the wall there’s always something going on. Along the first section of the wall, close to the Marmara Sea, the soil is being used by farmers who grow all sorts of vegetables and sell their crops on the spot at the end of the day. On the dilapidated parts of the wall overgrown with grass cattle is grazing, in the niches underneath the wall small businesses are nestled as well as some poor people’s ’homes’, and horses stand in the shade waiting their turn at the blacksmith’s across the street. On bushes on the wall laundry is drying and around the former city gates you can buy all sorts of things – shoes, toys, furnishings. The old Istanbul wall, you could say, lives!

The beginning of the walk is marked by the imposing and recently restored Yedikule Hisari (Seven Towers Castle), which is definitely worth a visit. The original parts of Yedikule were founded in the fourth century, after which different rulers added their own towers or gates. Four of the seven towers were built as part of the old city wall. The castle serves different purposes: defensive structure, entrance to the city, prison and execution site. Now it’s a museum, where it is even permitted to climb the walls. By all means, do that: the view over the sea and the city is breathtaking, and gives an idea of the walk along the wall to the north.

The occasional satellite dish

After Yedikule Hisari it’s important to keep the wall to your left for the rest of the walk. Not that there’s anything fishy about the other side, but it’s just not a nice walk: the traffic artery below assaults your lungs and your ears. Only at the very beginning of the walk is it nice to take a peek on the ‘wrong side’. There the former canals are now filled in and in use as gardens. The municipality rents them to people who cultivate the land and sell their crops on the spot. Many of those farmers also live on the land. Their houses are built against the wall, with the occasional satellite dish attached to it, and on the dilapilated parts of the wall cattle is grazing.

After the gardens, use the gate to go to the other side of the wall. In the almost seven kilometres to the north beautiful well-maintained neighbourhoods follow less prosperous and even poor areas of town mainly inhabited by migrants from the east and southeast of Turkey. They came to Istanbul to find work and built shanties against the wall. Chicken and other livestock rummage. There are also modern and conservative parts of town. The conservative are easily recognised: more than anywhere else in the city (totally) covered women walk on the street. A large number of these people are not originally from Istanbul, but mostly from central Anatolia.

Miraculous experience

In the middle of such a neighbourhood, one of the most impressive museums of Istanbul can be found: Kariye Museum. Built as a church in the eleventh century, later used as a mosque and now restored. It’s a miraculous experience to enter such a small building and come upon really beautiful mosaics and frescoes with images from the lives of Jesus and Maria and figures from the Old Testament. By the way, around Kariye Museum it is nice to have a rest: there is a small square with terraces where light or substantial lunches or dinners can be ordered – or just a nice Turkish coffee or tea.

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Not only the city along the wall, but also the wall itself is revealed in different shapes. Most parts are old, crumbled and overgrown with bushes and grass. Neglected, yes, but in the end it’s also spectacular how these broken parts of the wall stand out against the Istanbul sky. Here and there the wall is restored, but maybe the city government should not have done anything, or should have hired better experts to do the job. The renovated parts look too smooth and new and don’t remind us at all of the centuries old defensive structure. On other spots, modern life interferes with the wall, especially as congested streets disturb the walk along the wall.
But then‚ ‘disturb’ also sounds too negative. The big streets are an inevitable part of a city of around 17 million inhabitants and really make“ the walk into how we present it here: a coming together of ancient Constantinople and modern Istanbul.

Another jewel 

The previously mentioned Kariye Museum is situated north of one of the busy streets that intersect the wall, the Fevzi Pasa Caddesi, by the former Edirne Gate. In the same neighbourhood as Kiraye Museum another jewel can be found: Tekfur Sarayi, that is Tekfur Palace. It dates from the 13th century and is being restored – anyone who wants to take a look at the progress being made can go in, even though a sign tells you not to enter – nobody will stop you. Taking a look around is no problem, and it also offers an insight into the old-fashioned and sometimes dangerous working conditions on construction sites.

From Tekfur it’s only a short walk to the Golden Horn, the stretch of water that separates the European part of Istanbul into a southern and a northern part. At the end you can even climb the wall: there’s a staircase built alongside the wall which takes you up easily. From here the view over the Golden Horn and the bridge over it is impressive. From there you can also see the place from where the ferry departs. For around one euro the boat takes you back to the tourist heart of Istanbul, with a few stops on the way. The stunning view of the city from the water completes the Istanbul experience.

The route
The walk doesn’t have a hard and fast route: from the beginning at Yedikule Hisari – to be found in every travel guide, as is the way to get there – you just follow the inner side of the wall heading north. You turn left or right as you please, keeping the wall on your left, till eventually you inevitably reach the Golden Horn.
You can take things to eat with you, but that’s not really necessary. In the streets along the wall there are plenty of sandwich sellers and small diners, fruit and vegetable shops and here and there (for example around Kariye Museum) terraces and small restaurants.
In this part of town tourists are rare, and some areas are rather conservative. So here’s some clothing advice: short trousers and skirts that leave the legs bare are not the best choice, both for women and men. The same applies to sleeveless shirts.

A very good book to use along the walk is Byzantine Istanbul, written by Dutchman Robert van den Graven but written in English. A practical book with lots of historical information about places around the wall (and other buildings and areas from the Byzantine period). It’s available from every good bookshop in Istanbul (in the tourist area Sultanahmet for example in the bookshops on Divan Yolu). The historical highlights along the route (Yedikule Hisari, Tekfur Sarayi, Kariye Museum) are of course also mentioned in every travel guide.

(photography: Hanneke Geerdink and Inmagine. In the magazine other pictures were used)

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