I recently chatted about the day trip my bipedal attendants and I took to Istanbul (formerly Constantinople and Byzantium) last week but I didn’t say that we officially started our walking tour of the New City – not that the New City is all that new – only after travelling there by bus, ferry, tram and Istanbul’s little one-stop funicular. It’s quite different from Lisbon’s funiculars and I admit that I was a little disappointed that we were below the city the whole time. I find that underground photos often disappoint.

Anyway, we walked from one end of Taksim Square (the heart of the New City) down down down towards the Golden Horn. On our list – among other things – was the Galata Tower near the Golden Horn. The tower was originally built by the Genoese and the city would eventually be taken by the Venetians and because I spent many wonderful weeks in Northern Italy this winter, I thought that a visit to Galata would bring things full circle. And I have one more little coincidence: Istanbul (formerly Constantinople and Byzantium) was built on seven hills just like Rome! Isn’t life neat that way?

During the Middle Ages, this part of Byzantium (soon to be Constantinople and then Istanbul) was controlled by the Genoese – in fact, Genoa controlled a lot of the Mediterranean world at that time. They built the tower – all 205 feet of it – in 1348 as part of their fortress at Galata which sat menacingly across from the Byzantine part of the city, separated by the Golden Horn. In case you didn’t know, the Golden Horn is the inlet of the Bosphorus which divides the city of Istanbul (formerly Constantinople and Byzantium). It has nothing to do with musical instruments or rhinoceros (or rhinoceroses or rhinocerotes) like some people thought.

It was through the Golden Horn that the Venetians (more Italians!) were able to enter Constantinople (formerly Byzantium and soon to be Istanbul) during the Fourth Crusade and laid seige to the city.

Of course the Italians think that the name Galata comes from an Italian word and Greeks think it comes from a Greek word and you people squabble about so many unimportant things. The tower – the tallest structure in Byzantium in its day – was originally called Christea Turris (Tower of Christ) but eventually it became known as the Genoese Tower. I don’t know if Christ was annoyed by that at all – I mean, he has enough churches named after him …

Over the years, it’s weathered earthquakes, fires, and attacks by you humans. In 1875, its conical roof-cap was blown off during a fierce storm! It’s been rebuilt many, many times and has been a fire tower, military barracks, a dungeon (prisoners of war waited their turn there before becoming galley slaves on the Golden Horn), an astronomical observatory, and even a test site for a human-powered “airplane”.

It seems that around 1630, a certain Hezarfen Çelebi was so taken with Leonardo da Vinci’s (another Italian!) flight plans that he built his very own wings. According to eyewitnesses, he leapt from the tower and hang-glided for several miles across to the Asian side of Istanbul – or Constantinople. No one knows what happened to him: some say he received a sack of gold for his efforts while others believed that Muslim clerics banished him to North Africa.

By the way, Hezarfen’s brother Lagari is said to have used gunpowder to propel himself in a rocket in 1633. I think the Çelebi brothers were smoking something besides tobacco in their narghiles.

Of course nowadays, people don’t take flight from the top of the tower but there is a viewing deck from where you can enjoy stunning views of Istanbul (formerly Constantinople and Byzantium). Generally I find sites in the city very affordable but the entrance fee to the tower was a bit steep (no pun intended). As I said, we went for personal reasons (the Italian connection) but you would do just as well sitting at the nearby Spanish restaurant (like we did afterwards) and admiring the tower with a glass of sangria in one hand and a tortilla (or a beer) in the other. Cheers!

Originally written for Grey Bear-ology

posts by Grey Bear