Living in the shade of history

One of the most bizarre things I encountered during my trip to Istanbul was when I decided to leave the paths tread by many a tourist, and took a cab to the more remote areas of the city. For many a tourist, most monuments are quite easily accessible. The Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque are located opposite each other, the Topkapi Palace and the Archaeological Museum are only a short walk further down the road, and most bazaars can be found in the area as well. For the Galata Tower one only has to cross the Golden Horn, and even the Askeri military Museum was relatively easy to reach. I can only imagine that most visitors will stop there (many won’t even reach the military museum, except for people like our readers), but as the editor of a medieval military magazine, I could hardly leave the city which has withstood so many sieges without visiting the walls which kept all those enemies at bay. 

And so, on a sunny but brisk morning in February, I found myself in a cab on its way to Yedikule Hisari, a ‘fortress’ consisting of several original Byzantine towers as well as three other towers built after the fall of Constantinople. The construction partly enclosed the Byzantine Golden Gate, which was used especially as an entry into the city during triumphal processions, and which withstood several attacks during the Byzantine period. When we arrived, the most apparent aspect of the area (aside from the huge walls of the fortress, of course) was the contrast with the more touristic parts of the city. There were no vendors selling useless souvenirs, no bars with refreshing drinks; there wasn’t even a proper route towards the entrance of the fortress (we had to wind our way amongst racing cars through a narrow gate in the Theodosian Walls to go from outside the walls to the entrance). Finally, we managed to sidestep the traffic by climbing through a collapsed part of the wall, an area which seemed to have been used as a garbage belt and toilet. But we survived our adventure to tell the tale, and visited the fortress proper, which also offered quite a nice view on the walls themselves. 

Of course, we made a short tour through the fortress and on top of the walls, despite the fact that the only real way up were the original steps, of which only one had a rather rusty railing to hold on to during the climb. Not a place to be for the elderly and less mobile people amongst us, I’m afraid. But once on top, the view was impressive, and we managed to take some nice pictures. Not only of the walls, but also of the immediate area around it. Having visited several historic locations these past years, which are often protected by law, I was quite shocked to see how the locals used the area just outside the walls. The walls of Constantinople are composed of three parts, with a low outer wall, a higher placed middle wall, and a high inner wall, and the area in between the walls are currently used as overgrown cemeteries, for growing crops, and for building shabby hovels out of old materials. Granted, I might find the idea of living so close to history fascinating, but I can tell you that Istanbul can be cold in winter, and I can only imagine that life will be hard on those people living between a cemetery and a 1600 year wall, without heating, running water, and having to plant your own crops in soil sometimes littered with garbage. Still, their lives must be better than people living in the slums of South America, and for all I know, they can be quite happy with their little palace. 

That said, it was pretty strange to be confronted with that side of life in Istanbul, and quite unexpected within the shadow of Theodosian’s walls. Not unexpected for Theodosius himself, perhaps, as such a sight wouldn’t have been very uncommon at that time, but for me it was. On the other hand, it also means that the area directly outside of the walls isn’t being used for other purposes more damaging to the monument, and that the interested visitor can still enjoy the splendor of large parts of the (often restored) ancient city walls (in addition, I have to admit that several areas weren’t occupied at all).

If we compare Istanbul with other ancient/medieval city walls, the contrast is quite striking, but only regarding the fact that these other walls are being used in a less ‘shabby’ manner. That’s what welfare does, I guess. As with many other monuments from ancient and medieval times, the locals have made good use of the walls in other countries as well, even for modern purposes, though the purpose is often quite different. The Porta Maggiore in Rome, once part of an aquaduct made by Emperor Claudius, was built into the Aurelian Walls in ancient times and is now incorporated into the road network through the city, making a drive through the city certainly worth your while. Other parts are used in houses, both medieval and more modern ones. A most fitting reuse of a city wall can be found 10 meters from our office, in Zutphen, where the walls are made part of an important architecture firm. Those guys are literally working in the shadow of history.

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