Monuments to Power: City Walls

Name any barbarian horde–from Goths to Mongols to Russian Vikings to Christians–and they have attacked this city (first Byzantium, then Constantinople, then Istanbul) at some point during its 2000+ year history. One theory says the city was founded by Greeks around 650 BCE. Later, after laying the place to waste in one of their endless wars, the Romans realized the city was of strategic importance and so rebuilt and expanded the original designs.

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It wasn’t until Constantine’s rule in the 4th c.CE that the current walls were constructed. His grandson expanded the walls and fortified them considerably. Towers, moats (where possible), all kinds of weaponry, signals, and so on helped the city survive numerous attacks. Its inhabitants were not so fortunate, however, and there are many accounts of the walls being breached and massacres taking place.

The Fourth Crusade of 1204 is usually considered to be one of the worst, but 30 years earlier Eastern Orthodox Christians attacked Roman Catholics (mostly traders and aristocrats from Venice, who had monopolized shipping and thus incurred general hatred from locals) in what is called “the Latin Massacre.” 60,000 “Latins” were either killed or captured and expelled. The severed head of the Catholic Church’s top bishop was tied to the tail of a dog and run through town. Ironically, the local leader–who had usurped the queen and her infant son–was himself overthrown a few years later and ended up tortured and slain in the streets.

Well, enough of that. The city remained part of the Byzantine empire (the Eastern Orthodox Church) until the Ottoman conquest by Suleiman in the mid 1400s. He knew it was too much work to attack the walls so he opted for carrying his boats overland, around a series of chains blocking the main harbor, and attacked from the rear.

I took a tram out to a busy intersection in one of the walls’ mostly unrestored middle sections. From there, it was a walk up and down hills where a river ran through the city and thus made the walls vulnerable. In fact, this was the only spot where breaches occurred, so I wanted to see the land and understand how it could happen.

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Sun turned to clouds and wind, so I had to keep moving quickly to stay warm. A homeless enclave was smaller than I expected, and there were men here and there up on the ramparts, like images from an old Bergman film. Finding a single plum blossom in full bloom was one of the delights of the trip.

I had a cup of Turkish tea at the end and then caught a bus (after much asking around) to the city center. It deposited me near the Grand Bazaar, made once again famous by a chase scene on its rooftops from a recent James Bond film.

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