Istanbul: Direct line to Turkey's past

A walk along the ancient walls reveals the city's convoluted history, says Tristan Rutherford

On the lower shores of the Golden Horn – the oozy inlet of the Bosphorus that divides European Istanbul from its touristy historic centre – I witnessed my favourite fiddle. The trick is known across the Mediterranean as the gold ring scam. You'll be strolling along when a fellow walker stumbles over a gold signet ring, which he assumes must be yours. Handle it and your new friend will want a finder's fee. Or a willowy accomplice might spring from a side street claiming it was hers all along, and only a crossed palm of silver will resolve her indignation.

Yet the tranquil upper reaches of the Golden Horn are a world away from such chicanery. Opposite the waterway's Ayvansaray bus stop, the first of 96 raggedy-jaggedy towers marks the edge of ancient Constantinople. From here, five miles of crumbling city walls run down to the sea on Istanbul's southern shore.

Built by the Byzantines to repel barbarian hordes, they were finished just in time to keep out Attila the Hun in 448AD. Passing markets, ancient mosques and finely frescoed churches, they offer a passage back to early Ottoman times, devoid of tourists and tricksters alike.

Many of Istanbul's grandest monuments were given a kiss of life as the city basked in its Capital of Culture 2010 celebrations. Not these city walls. Mossy steps allowed me to clamber up to the top of the first tower for panoramas over this city of 13 million souls. My gaze swept across ancient mosques and modern stadia in the early morning sun, the mighty Bosphorus and the forests of Anatolia, the iconic Galata Tower skylined against the brand new Trump Towers.

For the next half-mile the footpath along the wall offered a historical helter-skelter through old Istanbul. First was a mausoleum of Arabian warrior Ahmed el Hudri, where chanting devotees bowed heads before a draped tomb. Other long-dead acolytes lie under the surrounding gardens. Turbans topped the tombstones of the ancient faithful. The path soon stumbled past a dainty little mosque designed by famed Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan. I paused at the yellow Egrikapy Panayia orthodox church, where I was the first visitor for weeks.

Further on, chickens were roosting in the fortifications. A father and son team were flogging fresh anchovies from an icy pushcart. Once-grand wooden villas crumbled into figgy gardens. An outdoor bird market rounded off the first mile mark near Hirami Ahmet Pasha Mosque, a converted Eastern Orthadox church from pre-Ottoman times. Old chaps in flat caps cupped pigeons and doves, however it was all puff and wind; the only bird trader making any money was the one selling packets of seed.

The city wall runs downhill from here to Edirnekapi – the Gate of Edirne – which once led to the Ottoman Empire's European domains. The towers seemed taller and bulkier here, and with good reason. This topographical dip in Istanbul's defences has been the focus of many a marauding horde. Bulgars and Kievian Rus battered the bastions in the first millennia, as did early Arabs – who nearly succeeded in taking Istanbul for Islam seven centuries before the Turks.

The top of one restored tower offered an awesome panorama over the defences, a Great Wall of Istanbul, panning into the distance. The scene would have rung true back in 1453 when the current Turkish tenants moved in to stay. In April of that year, Sultan Mehmet II arrived at the city walls with 100,000 soldiers, determined to flip the last vestiges of the Byzantine Empire into the Ottoman realm. But when Mehmet marched through the walls victorious, he promptly put a stop to any looting and paid tribute in the great Hagia Sophia cathedral. The Ottomans preserved almost all of classic Constantinople, including the 5th-century Chora Church next to the city walls. Now a museum, its frescos and gold mosaics retell biblical history in a spellbinding riot of colour.

Next door to the church, I stopped for lunch at Asitane Restaurant, a treat for historians of a culinary kind. Here owner Batur Durmay recreates long-lost Ottoman dishes. A highlight is slow-baked goose kebab with almond pilaf, a dish with history: it was previously served at one of Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent's circumcision ceremonies back in 1539.

History was visible at every turn as the towers rolled down to the Sea of Marmara. I followed a group of students into a towering gatehouse filled with Greek inscriptions, remembering that it was once a portcullised murder hole for barbarian hordes.

The moat that ringed the city centuries ago was more visible in this section too. In more recent years, it has been developed into a fertile patch of smallholdings, timelessly picturesque at sunset against the walls.

It was into central Istanbul, a maelstrom of modernity, that that I now headed. Today the area is known as much for its rooftop bars as it is for the Grand Bazaar. For the walls, the end of the line is Yedikule, the city's former Golden Gate. It was once used by victorious generals returning from a foreign "triumph" and was punched through in 1889 by the Orient Express. A local train still draws into the Yedikule platform and rattles for three miles along the Bosphorus to Sirkeci station, the terminus of European rail. En route, it runs parallel to another length of city walls... but that's another story.

Travel essentials: Istanbul

Visiting there

* Chora Museum, Kariye Camii Sokak (choramuseum.com). Open Thu-Tue 9am-5pm; TL15 (£6).

Eating & drinking there

* Asitane, Kariye Camii Sokak (00 90 212 635 7997; asitanerestaurant.com).

More information

* Tristan Rutherford is the author of the "Istanbul à la Carte" map, published this month, and priced €8.90 (alacartemaps.com).

 

Life and Style
Steve Shaw shows Kate how to get wet behind the ears and how to align her neck
healthSteven Shaw - the 'Buddha of Breaststroke' - applies Alexander Technique to the watery sport
Arts and Entertainment
The sight of a bucking bronco in the shape of a pink penis was too much for Hollywood actor and gay rights supporter Martin Sheen, prompting him to boycott a scene in the TV series Grace and Frankie
tv
Sport
footballShirt then goes on sale on Gumtree
Voices
Terry Sue-Patt as Benny in the BBC children’s soap ‘Grange Hill’
voicesGrace Dent on Grange Hill and Terry Sue-Patt
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010
music
Arts and Entertainment
Twin Peaks stars Joan Chen, Michael Ontkean, Kyle Maclachlan and Piper Laurie
tvName confirmed for third series
Sport
Cameron Jerome
footballCanaries beat Boro to gain promotion to the Premier League
Arts and Entertainment
art
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Guru Careers: Events Coordinator / Junior Events Planner

    £24K + Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking an Events Coordinator ...

    Royal Yachting Association Cymru Wales: Chief Executive Officer

    Salary 42,000: Royal Yachting Association Cymru Wales: The CEO is responsible ...

    Guru Careers: Marketing Manager / Marketing Communications Manager

    £35-40k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Marketing Communicati...

    Ashdown Group: Technical IT Manager - North London - Growing business

    £40000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A growing business that has been ope...

    Day In a Page

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine