One City on Two Continents

Maiden’s Tower

by Cihan Koru

Maiden's Tower in Istanbul

The Maiden’s Tower (aka ‘Leander’s Tower’), a prominent landmark of Istanbul, is a structure built upon a small rock protruding above sea level about 200 meters off the Asian shore of Istanbul.  It is located at the southern end of the Bosphorus, the natural sea passage between the sea of Marmara and the Black Sea.

The Maiden’s Tower, a seagull’s perspective

The tower is rich in mythology and legends.  The most popular legend involves the Byzantine emperor who built the tower to house and protect his beloved daughter against an ominous prophesy that she would be killed by a venomous snake on her 18th birthday.  As it got closer to the princess’ birthday no one other than the emperor was allowed to visit her on the little island.  When her 18th birthday came around, the emperor who was then very happy to have seen her daughter unharmed up to the predicted day, had his servants prepare a basket of exotic fruits as a gift of celebration and took the basket to her daughter. The young princes joyous about her father’s gift reached into the basket and an asp hiding among the figs bit her.  She died in her father’s arms.  Ever since, the building has been called the Maiden’s Tower.

The other legend is about two lovers, Hero and Leander, hence the alternate name for the building, Leander’s Tower.  This story, however, sounds more like having been borrowed from the well-known ancient Greek myth about the Hero of Sestos (modern day Kilitbahir) and Leandros of Abydos (modern day Çanakkale).  Both of these settlements were located on the banks of the Hellespont strait (modern day Dardanelles), one on European and the other on Asian soil.  As the legend would have it, Leander would swim every night across the Hellespont to be with his sweetheart. On her part, Hero would light a lamp every night at the top of her tower to guide her lower’s way.

Fair Hero signaling for her Leander

This was all fine and dandy during the summer when the sea was calm and warm.  Come winter, stormy gales and colder water started to make Leander’s journey harder and harder. Never the less, the fire in his heart still managed to propel him across the waves to his paramour until one night the breezes blew out Hero’s light, and Leander lost his way, and was drowned.

Hero’s woe

Hero threw herself from the tower in grief and died as well. So it is pretty much the same story in both legends, though Leander of the Bosphorus had to swim only 200 meters as opposed to the less lucky Leandros of Abydos who had to fight the swift currents for more than a kilometer and a half.

The recorded history of the tower dates back to the Byzantine period. Famous 17th century Ottoman travel writer Evliya Çelebi describes the building as follows;  ‘It is a tower at an arrow’s range from the shore.  It is artfully constructed with a square footprint. It is about 80 arshins (60 meters) high. Its area is about 200 paces (1500 sq meters) and has two entrances’.

An imperial seal affixed to the building certifies that the current building was built by Sultan Mahmoud II. in 1832. Throughout its known history the structure was used to serve many different purposes including a burial ground, a customs station, a staging platform for shows, a prison and a quarantine lot.  However, it was mostly used as a point where a lighthouse of one sort or another was present and guided sailors throughout history.

The tower features a restaurant with outside seating for dining during fair weather.

The building went through a major renovation in year 2000. Today it houses a restaurant and a café, Kuledebar, on the top floor. An observation terrace surrounds the top portion of the tower.  Access to the Maiden’s Tower is provided by motorboats that leave from the shore right across the building.

Kuledebar cafe

The Kuledebar café on the top floor.

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