Since the medieval Byzantine period, 200 meters off the shore of the Salacak district in Üsküdar, at the southern entrance of the Bosphorus, a tower lyes on a small islet: The Maiden’s Tower (Turkish: Kız Kulesi).
It is also (mistakenly) known as Leander’s Tower (Tower of Leandros), which comes from one of many legends about the construction. Mistakenly, because the legend of Hero and Leander took place in the Dardanelles, not in the Bosphorus.
History of the Maiden’s Tower
Although it is not definite as to when the Maiden’s Tower was built, the tower’s architectural style is said by some sources to be from around 340 BC. According to the historian Russ Rowlett, after the naval victory at Cyzicus, the Ancient Athenian general Alcibiades possibly built a custom station for ships coming from the Black Sea on a small rock in front of Chrysopolis (today’s Üsküdar, see notes 1).
In 1110, Byzantine Emperor Alexius Comnenus built a wooden tower protected by a stone wall. From the tower, an iron chain stretched across to another tower erected on the European shore, at the quarter of Mangana in Constantinople. The islet was then connected to the Asiatic shore through a defense wall, whose underwater remains are still visible. during the siege of Constantinople in 1453, the tower held a Byzantine garrison commanded by the Venetian Gabriele Trevisano.
After the conquest of the city, Sultan Mehmet II used the structure as a watchtower. It was destroyed during the earthquake of 1509 and burned in 1721. Since then it was used as a lighthouse, and the surrounding walls were repaired in 1731 and 1734 until in 1763 it was erected using stone. From 1829 the tower was used as a quarantine station, and in 1832 was restored by Sultan Mahmud II. Restored again by the harbor authority in 1945 (see notes 2).
The most recent restoration began in 1998, and steel supports were added around the ancient tower as a precaution after the 17 August 1999 earthquake.
Legend of the Maiden’s Tower
There are many legends about the construction of the tower and its location. According to the most popular Turkish legend, an emperor had a much-beloved daughter, and one day, an oracle prophesied that she would be killed by a venomous snake on her 18th birthday.
In an effort to thwart his daughter’s early demise by placing her away from land so as to keep her away from any snakes, the emperor had the tower built in the middle of the Bosphorus to protect his daughter until her 18th birthday. The princess was placed in the tower, where she was frequently visited only by her father.
On the 18th birthday of the princess, the emperor brought her a basket of exotic sumptuous fruits as a birthday gift, delighted that he was able to prevent the prophecy. Upon reaching into the basket, however, an asp that had been hiding among the fruit bit the young princess and she died in her father’s arms, just as the oracle had predicted. Hence the name Maiden’s Tower.
Hero and Leander
As I mentioned above, the name of Leander’s Tower mistakenly comes from another story about a maiden: Hero and Leander. It is the Greek myth relating the story of Hero, a priestess of Aphrodite who dwelt in a tower in Sestos on the European side of the Dardanelles, and Leander (Ancient Greek: Λέανδρος, Léandros), a young man from Abydos on the opposite side of the strait. Leander fell in love with Hero and would swim every night across the Hellespont to be with her. Hero would light a lamp at the top of her tower to guide his way.
Succumbing to Leander’s soft words and to his argument that Venus, as the goddess of love, would scorn the worship of a virgin, Hero allowed him to become “special friends” with her. These trysts lasted through the warm summer. But one stormy winter night, the waves tossed Leander in the sea and the breezes blew out Hero’s light; Leander lost his way and was drowned. When Hero saw his dead body, she threw herself over the edge of the tower to her death to be with him.
It’s not certain that how Leander’s story transferred from Dardanelles to Bosphorus and was mistakenly attributed to the tower.
Today, there is a restaurant on the first floor and a café at the top of the tower.
- Rowlett, Russ. “Lighthouses of Northwestern Turkey” The Lighthouse Directory University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
- Müller-Wiener (1976), p. 334