One City on Two Continents

Istanbul Beneath My Wings*

by Cihan Koru

I am standing on the observation deck of the 668 year old stone structure scanning the view 87 meters below.  On my left, I can clearly see the strait of water that first zigs and then zags towards the Black Sea to the north. This is Bosphorus, the waterway that separates Asia and Europe. Right across the point where I am, the Sea of Marmara extends and expands to the horizon.  The Prince Islands, an archipelago of less than a dozen members, is visible close to the Asian shore. Starting a few hundred meters from me, and to the right, lays the Golden Horn, an ancient river inlet that separates the ‘Historic Peninsula’ from the rest of the town on European soil. This is as good as any vantage point to soak in the sights offered by Istanbul, known earlier by the names of Constantinople and Byzantium. Across the Golden horn are the Hagia Sophia, the grandest Christian Church of its time as well as the Ottoman jewels like the Blue Mosque and the Mosque of Suleyman the Magnificent.  I am on top of the Galata Tower.

The Chora Church (now museum) Balat, Istanbul

The view from the top of the Galata Tower

As I stand on this lofty perch, I can’t help but hark back to the 17th century, to the day a man named Hezârfen Ahmet Çelebi stood at this very spot before embarking on his infamous aerial journey across the water. Believe it or not, it was the very first intercontinental flight by a human being.  While at the moment I am standing safe behind the railing of the observation deck, Hezârfen must have got up on one the short stone columns that connect the railing spans before jumping off.  Then again, he might have sat, rather than stand, at the edge to steady himself and the two huge contraptions, ‘the wings’, he had affixed to his body. This is more likely as he probably attempted this feat on a day with a fairly steady wind from the south.  Present day aviation engineers figure that the only way Hezârfen could have glided from the top of the Galata Tower all the way across the Bosphorus to the spot where he landed at Dogancilar Square on the Asian side, he must have utilized the lifting power of such a wind.

Looks like, while intending to write about the Galata Tower,  I got derailed and started to talk about Hezârfen Ahmet.  So, let me backtrack a bit and complete the discourse on the tower, and then come back to Hezârfen later.

Galata is the name of the section of the city, roughly consisting of the northern coastal stretch of the Golden Horn, along with the slopes beyond it, starting from the entrance of the ‘horn’ extending toward Bosphorus to Tophane to the north. This area acquired commercial importance as an Italian trading colony which flourished over a period of time. Starting in the 12th century, the Amalfitans, then the Venetians and later the Pisans obtained special privileges from the Byzantines to operate in Galata. The Genoese also had an earlier stint at this harbour territory but were forced out by Venetians during the Latin invasion of Byzantium in 1204. It was Emperor Michael Palaiologos VIII (1261-1282), who was able to recapture the city and signed a new treaty with the Genoese and permitted them to rebuild their former commercial settlements. The Genoese, then, designed and built the tower of Galata.  Although the practical function of the building was to serve as an observation tower, its real purpose was to represent the might and the sovereignty of the people who built it. Following the conquest of Istanbul in 1453, the Sultan Mehmet II also signed an agreement with the Genoese and granted them the same privileges which had been obtained during the Byzantine era.

Genoese, called this new building ‘the Tower of Christ (Christea Turris)’. Unlike an earlier tower that was built close to the water, Christea Turris is built higher up on the hill overlooking the water. The older one was built by the Byzantines and was known as the Great Tower (Megalos Pyrgos).  The long chain that the Byzantians used to close off the Golden Horn against intruders was anchored to the Great Tower at this end.  By the way, if you are interested, you can see parts of this chain at the Istanbul Military Museum at Harbiye.  When the Latin Crusaders sacked Constantinople across the Golden Horn in 1204, they did not spare the old Pyrgos and burned it down as well.  The current tower is massive.  Its stone walls are 3.75 meters thick.  No wonder it managed to survive later invasions, fires and earthquakes and made it to this day all in one piece.  The tower got on the UNESCO world heritage tentative list in 2013.

The Galata Tower, Istanbul

The Galata Tower

Throughout its life the tower was used for many different purposes, such as a light house, a dormitory for prisoners of war and an astronomical observatory. During the 19th century it served mostly as a fire watch tower. A massive drum would alert the citizens when a fire was noted. Apparently the officials who were put in charge of watching for fires were not of the required caliber as the tower itself caught fire on two occasions. To add insult to injury, its conical roof blew off during a strong storm in 1875. It stayed without a hat until 1967 when the current cap was installed.

On some days the queue outside the entrance may seem daunting and the TL25 charge to enter the tower may seem steep to some but the spectacular views in all directions at the top, in my opinion, is well worth it. It really gives you a good orientation of the city. Try to time your visit to start an hour before sunset. This is the time to catch the true glory of the scenery. No wonder the photographers call this period ‘the golden hour’.  In order to extract the full benefit of your entrance fee, linger around and have a cup of tea or coffee at the café on the top floor until the sky really darkens outside and soak in the city lights as they come on.

To reach the observation deck you can take an elevator to the 7th floor and then climb a couple of flights of spiral staircases. The original stairway from the ground level is still there but, as expected, most visitors prefer to enjoy it as they are descending for exit. Use of the stairs does give you an appreciation of the workmanship that went into the building effort for the construction of this massive building.

On the observation deck, the ledge that make up the walkway is barely wide enough for two people to pass each other. There are signs that instruct visitors to move in one direction.  However, there is no staff to enforce the rules and there usually are a few tourists that don’t pay attention to any signage. Although this is not an epic issue, when there are a lot of teenagers blocking the walkway while taking selfies or more than an occasional anarchist insisting on ‘swimming against the current’, it does get rather annoying.

There are two venues which serve food in the tower. The one on the 9th floor, which is the level of the observation deck, serves as a café all day until 19:00 hours.

The Cafe on 9th Floor

The Cafe on 9th Floor

The larger restaurant below the cafe opens at 20:00 and hosts customers until 00:30. This one features a dinner show which includes a belly dancer, folk dances and international music. The evening usually ends with the guests getting up and dancing until closing time. Good food, plenty of drinks, great show, fantastic views of the city and, depending on the hotel you are staying at, free transfer to and from your hotel. A bit pricey but with drinks included you could pay more elsewhere. Make sure to call +212 293 81 80 for reservations and information about prices and the evening’s program.

The Restaurant on 8th Floor

The Restaurant on 8th Floor

Even if you do not stay inside for dinner, the area around the tower is also full of great restaurants and bars, so it is well worth staying around following the visit to the tower.

Cafes Around the Galata Tower in Istanbul

Cafes Around the Galata Tower in Istanbul

I have one last tip you may find invaluable if you are planning a visit to the tower. Many tourists who try to access the building from the harbor find the steep hill tiring to climb.  The trick is to take the Tunel (the Tunnel) in Karakoy.  It is a short underground railway that operates between two stations which climbs the hill and drops you at a point higher than where the tower is.  Make sure to take the ‘Istiklal Caddesi’ exit at the destination station.  You can then enjoy the downhill descent of about 400 meters through small souvenir shops and cafes.

Before I affix the last dot to this piece, let me go back to Hezârfen as promised. He was an early aviator whose passion was to someday ‘fly like the birds’. He lived during the reign of Sultan Murad IV in the 17th century. Hezârfen was his nickname meaning ‘all-knowingall-wise and all-seeing’. He studied the aerodynamics of several different objects along with the wings of birds. He designed and constructed wings with which he conducted trial runs before he attempted his historic flight.  The day he finally made his successful flight the sultan watched him from his palace across the Golden Horn.  First, his highness appreciated Hezârfen’s accomplishment and rewarded him with a pouch full of gold coins. However, His Excellency  got spooked by this man who could fly, considering him to be too dangerous and sent him to exile in Algeria.

Unfortunately the flight of Hezârfen is not widely documented and there are pundits that question the existing citations. The best known account of the flight is a short passage in the travelogue of Evliya Celebi, an Ottoman explorer.  The only other known mention of the event is by Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq, the Austrian ambassador to Constantinople in 1554–1562, who noted that a Turk in Constantinople attempted to fly across the Bosphorus.

I will let the historians sort out the facts and the fiction.  As I stood on that deck on top of this majestic architecture I did try to imagine how it felt to Hezârfen as he glided over the city beneath his wings*.

*Istanbul Beneath My Wings is a 1996 film about the lives of Hezârfen Ahmed Çelebi and his brother and fellow Lagari Hasan Çelebi.

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