Saturday, October 14, 2006

Istanbul 2 - Harbor Walls


Contrary to Zeynep Celik’s claim that “the city lost its face on the Golden Horn” when the 1980’s municipal government performed some heavy handed urban renewal, it actually sloughed off an acquired layer of industry that was not present when the original defensive harbor walls were built. The chaotic and colorful collection of fishing shacks and storage buildings may have been lost, but the city walls were brought back to light. For several hundred years these walls were subsumed into the workmanlike fabric of the Fener neighborhood, becoming so much impediment and building material. Over the years, houses were built through them, chunks were knocked down for roads, and structures were perched over them. Walls that once repelled the Huns are today used to prop up living rooms.

The original system of walls was built under the reign of Theodosius II to enclose an expanded Constantinople in 413. The harbor walls along the Golden Horn were the lowest and weakest in defense terms, with the bulk of the effort going to the western front that could be easily attacked by land. The Marmara Sea walls, that could be easily reached by boat, were somewhere in between. The Golden Horn had the noteworthy security of two towers that would stretch a chain across the inlet to prevent ships from entering.

The western walls, known today as the Theodosian Walls, are the most intact and easily viewed piece of the original system. There have been numerous archaeological studies and ongoing efforts to rebuild them have led to a patchwork of impressive monumental sections, though the veracity of these reconstructed sections is questionable. Swaths of grassy landscape make viewing these walls relatively easy and approachable. Since they stretch seven kilometers from the Golden Horn to the Marmara, a popular way to see them is via bus or car; a high speed motorway conveniently follows the walls, in places where the moat would have been. They are still one of the most scenic monuments in the city, with their picturesque air of decay conforming to the popular notion of Istanbul as a fading old man.

"I have seen the ruins of Athens, of Ephesus, and Delphi: I have traversed the great part of Turkey and many other parts of Europe, and some of Asia; but I never beheld a work of nature or art which yielded an impression like the prospect on each side from the Seven Towers to the end of the Golden Horn" (Lord Byron)

The Marmara walls are in decent shape, though exhibit more vernacular use than the western walls. Due to the steep topography of the city, many houses have been built up on the inner side and to varying degrees poke through or hang over into the mostly unused parkland below. Compared to the walls on the Golden Horn, the Marmara walls are mostly discernible as an object, and are noted in most guidebooks for viewing. However, for the purposes of this study, the eroded harbor walls along the Golden Horn in the Fener neighborhood are the most compelling.

The Golden Horn was considered one of the greatest natural harbors in the world. Coupled with the growth of the “new” city in Galata, the walls along the Gold Horn tell the story of the city’s desire to escape its imperial confines. Military tactics in the 19th century made city walls obsolete, and the fortifications along the Golden Horn were the first to be subsumed by more important economies facilitated by the harbor. Istanbul grew to the north, with the Golden Horn and the independently international mercantile city of Galata as the center of gravity in the 18th through the 20th centuries. The stronger the flow of traffic, the more the wall was eroded. Most of the urban landscape in Eminönü, near the busy Galata Bridge and ferry landings, is barren of the once vital harbor walls.

In this sense the entire wall system traces the pressure of urban flows. The southern and western walls were allowed to remain since the neighborhoods had no specific need to communicate through them, and regional arteries of traffic are aligned with historic trade routes through the original gates. Neighborhoods to the west remain some of the most conservative and isolated in spite of their proximity to the tourist friendly old city. The sea walls to the south haven’t had any pressure for access since the Theodosian Harbor silted up in the 8th century. The northern harbor walls, on the other hand, display the increasing pull of international trade to the north.

The harbor wall has lost its original use of keeping enemies out and now sits on land that is used for shops, garages, restaurants, and other uses related to newer economies. In many ways it is a nuisance, and is treated as such. Originally it had 12 well defended gates that could be closed in times of threat; today there are at least 24 roads that lead down to the waterfront, and numerous other ad hoc openings. Its original purpose as an impediment is now problematic considering the city’s rapprochement with the Golden Horn.

In the Fener neighborhood, the walls reach their palimpsest apex, where a constant siege is taking place by the denizens on the walls. The walls are eroded, punctured, mounted, patched up and otherwise occupied in the rough desire to improve individual surroundings. Many buildings today use the walls for structure, rendering the wall as an independent object null. It has become a hybrid of the city, co-opted into the fabric in many small stages. In most cases it is reduced to 3-4 meters tall. A generous rough estimate would place the amount of wall remaining at 20% or less along the Golden Horn. That would mean that somewhere around 130,000 cubic meters is missing, enough to fill the Hagia Sophia. Sometimes a nice café will strategically re-build the wall in order to highlight its venerable location, but the bricks and mortar are clearly new. Other times the wall is a highly utilitarian enclosure, and concrete will be used to fill in the missing bits. Most often, though, it is in the way, and windows and doors are carved out of something meant to repel cannonballs.

Next stop: Hippodrome