As is well known, Istanbul has a history that stretches back in time and a culture that has been nourished by a variety of sources. Every single historical incident, every hero, every architectural structure that has left their traces deep in people’s lives throughout the history of Istanbul—a city that was once the capital of colossal civilizations—has been subject to urban legends; it is these legends that have engraved such events in the collective memory. Thus, throughout history an exceptional “treasury of legends” has been accumulated. Several instances of this treasury will be discussed below.
The Establishment of Istanbul: The Angel and the Eagle
Many legends about the establishment of Istanbul can be found in written and oral sources. Some of these legends are cited in the article “Istanbul ve Efsaneleri” (Istanbul and Legends) by Hans Hermann Russack. The legend mentioned in this article goes as follows:
Overthrowing his rival Lisinus in Krizopolis (Üsküdar), Constantine one night dreamed that the Roman Empire was on the verge of collapse. The emperor decided to go to Ilion (Troy), the native city of the founder of ancient Rome, Ene, and build a new capital city there. Here Troy, the cradle of Rome, would be constructed in an even more beautiful way than it had been before. By the means of this Roman city, the collapse of the empire would be prevented.
Emperor Constantine started to determine the borders of the new capital; the tomb of Ajax was to be the center. Walls began to be built and the city’s gates were erected. At that moment the emperor had another dream in which a lady in rags and tatters was begging him for clothing.
Interpreters of the dream told him that he needed to bring a different ruined city into existence. Constantine recalled that he had won his last military victory at Chalcedon (Kadıköy), and thus he began making measurements there instead, leaving the walls and towers of Troy only partly-finished. However, a glorious eagle that descended from the skies seized the measuring rope from the hands of the emperor and after crossing the sea, left it at the gates of the ancient city of Byzantium.
Constantine immediately understood the message from God and started his work anew by the walls of Byzantium, where the eagle had dropped the measuring rope, determining the boundaries of new Rome. He was pacing slowly along the boundaries of the new capital city with a spear in his hand. The officials accompanying Constantine were surprised at how their emperor was pacing such a vast border, from to sea-to-sea, over the empty fields between the Golden Horn and the Marmara Sea. When they asked, “Your Majesty, will we go further?” Constantine replied them: “We will go until the one in front of me stops!” He was referring to an angel that his men could not see who was leading the way. Finally, the angel stopped by the Marmara coast and the emperor determined the boundary of the city by stabbing his spear into the soil. Thus, the first borders of Constantinople were determined and the city walls were built according to this divine message.1
This legend about the establishment of the city answers the questions about how the city walls, which protected the city for centuries, from its time as Constantinople until the era of Ottoman Istanbul, were built. According to popular belief, these city walls, which shielded the city during dozens of bloody battles and witnessed the conquest of Constantinople, were built in response to a divine sign. Moreover, the Byzantine emperors declared that the eagle in the legend was the symbol of their empire, thereby emphasizing that divine power always supported the city they had founded and the empire they governed.
The Maiden’s Tower (Kız Kulesi): The Love of Leandros and Hero
The Maiden’s Tower (Kız Kulesi) is a structure built on a tiny island, situated offshore from Salacak, close to the point where the Marmara Sea and the Bosphorus meet. It is the only architectural work inherited from the Byzantium period that remains in Üsküdar. Tracing back to 24 BC, the tower was constructed where the Black Sea merges with the Marmara Sea. Some historians refer to the tower as the Tower of Leandros.
As one of the most significant symbols of Istanbul, the Maiden’s Tower has been subject to many legends. These legends are still conveyed through oral and written sources. Compared to other variations, the following legend that we compiled from an electronic source contains an especially rich variety of themes.
A long time ago on the ridges of Üsküdar there was a temple built in the name of Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty. Hero, about whose love and beauty legends were told, was responsible for taking care of the doves in this temple, where maidens became nuns. Every year in the spring, a feast was organized in the name of the goddess who embellished and adorned nature with beauty during the summer season. Floods of people from neighboring cities and towns would come to this spring feast, and everybody would eat, drink and make merry all through the celebration.
A handsome young man named Leandros, who lived on the other side of the Bosphorus, came to the temple for the first time for the feast. Perhaps Aphrodite heard his prayers and caused him to cross paths with the beautiful Hero. The two youngsters fell in love as soon as they saw each other. However, there was a mighty obstacle between them. This obstacle was the Bosphorus. Prior to returning to the city where he lived, Leandros told his lover that the sea between them would not be an obstacle. If Hero lit the light in the tower on nights when the sea was calm, Leandros would be able to swim across. Throughout the summer the two lovers met every night when the sea was calm. However, the summer ended and winter came. Harsh winds replaced warm breezes. The choppiness of the sea turned into waves that followed, one after another.
One morning, while bidding farewell to her lover, Hero begged him not to come again since it had become so dangerous to swim between the two coasts. Though he was not willing to do so, Leandros kept the promise. However, his longing for Hero grew day by day. He watched the other side of the sea every night to allay his sorrows. One night, he saw the light of the tower glowing. Thinking that his lover was inviting him, he surrendered himself to the wild waves. Nevertheless, it was not Hero who had turned the light on, but one of the administrators of the temple, who realized that the two lovers were meeting secretly. Overcome with the idea of being reunited with Hero, poor Leandros struggled with the powerful waves while trying not to lose the sight of the light. As he approached the shores of Üsküdar, the light was suddenly turned off and Leandros was plunged into relentless darkness in the middle of the sea. At first he thought that the light had been blown out by the wind and he waited for it to be relit, but the light never returned and Leandros was lost to the huge waves.
The next morning, people also found the corpse of Hero on the cliff under the temple. She could not bear the death of her lover and had been reunited with him. Some time later, a cliff formed where Leandros had met his death in the Bosphorus. Thus the Maiden’s Tower was built in memory of Leandros and Hero.2
We can find ancient structures similar to the Maiden’s Tower in many other countries; indeed, we can find similar legends about the creation of such towers in legends in various other languages.
The Maiden’s Stone and Djinn
The columns situated in different districts of Istanbul are structures that convey the historical, cultural, religious and architectural fabric of Istanbul from the ancient, mysterious periods of history to us today. Amazingly, the legends surrounding these columns have survived the centuries in oral as well as written sources. In İstanbul’un Yüreğinde Tarihe Yolculuk: Anıtlar-Olaylar-Efsaneler by Derman Bayladi the following legend is told; we also come across this in certain versions in oral sources:
During the construction of Hagia Sofia, a young girl was going towards the building, carrying a huge column on her back. On her way, a djinn suddenly appeared and asked the girl: “Where are you taking this piece of stone on your back?” The girl replied back to the djinn, “I’ve heard of a church called Hagia Sophia. I am taking this column there as a small contribution.” The djinn told her, “You are already too late. The construction of the church has been completed. Leave the stone where it is.”
The girl was very sad, but out of desperation she left the column where she had first picked it up. Yet, she started to doubt the decision after a while. “The djinn told me that Hagia Sophia was completed, but I should go and see with my own eyes,” she told herself. Setting off on her journey, she saw that Hagia Sofia was not yet completed. At that moment, she understood that the djinn had deceived her, and she went back to retrieve the stone. But no matter how hard she tried, she could never lift it again. Because she had believed the lie of the djinn and abandoned the stone, the girl’s magic power had left her. Thus, the stone has always remained in this place.
The mysterious columns of Istanbul, bearing the traces of Pagan beliefs, are structures conveying the historical and cultural fabric of the city to today from the dark periods of history. The Kıztaşı (Maiden’s Stone) on Kıztaşı Street, in Fatih, is also known as the Column of Markianos. It was erected in the name of Emperor Markianos (450-457) during the Byzantium period by the mayor Tatiatus. Including the capital, it measures 17 meters high. On the north side of the column there is a base resting on three stairs, on which two figures of the Goddess of Victory are displayed, holding a six-rayed cross within a circle. The column was referred to as Kıztaşı in the Ottoman period; this name was derived from one of the reliefs of the Goddess of Victory.
Hagia Sophia and the Miracle of Miraj
As is the case for the other elements of human culture, prior to the invention of writing, legends were transmitted from generation to generation in an environment of oral culture. After the invention of writing, legends were passed down from one generation to the next in written sources that were created under the influence of the “narrative history”. For this reason, in manuscripts and history books, we may encounter various legends about Hagia Sophia, one of the most significant landmarks of Istanbul and its conquest, in manuscripts and history books.
One of these works is the book called Târîh-i Kal‘a-i İstanbul ve Ma‘bed-i Câmi-i Ayasofya by Koca Nişancı Reisülküttap Celalzade Mustafa Çelebi (d. 1567). In this work, the author provides a legend that cannot be found in other sources:3
One night Archangel Gabriel arrived and invited Prophet Muhammad to the Miraj. The Archangel and Prophet Muhammad began to travel through the levels of the skies and the heavens. They even saw the maqam of Firdaws. There they saw a maqam that looked similar to a mosque. In this building, there were forty ruby columns. The interior was covered with emeralds and turquoise. The flooring was made of silver; the exterior court was ornamented with various gems set in crystal. The water of Kawsar ran continuously in a pool that streamed from golden and silver spouts. It is said that once one enters this pool, he or she never wants to come out again.
Prophet Muhammad asked, “Oh my dear brother Gabriel! Where is the most beautiful and ornamented maqam here?” Gabriel replies, “Oh Muhammad! Allah made that maqam for your umma. It is called Jami al-Kubra (Grand Mosque). In the world, the twin of this maqam exists in the city of “Constantinople”, surrounded by three seas and land. In this city there is a beautiful sanctuary named “Sophia” and a supreme maqam. It is called Jami al-Sughra (Small Mosque). It is the exemplification of the supreme maqam that you saw here. Your ummah will have the opportunity to worship there.”
When Prophet Muhammad heard Gabriel’s words, he gave his thanks to Allah and gazed at the charming maqam. After Prophet Muhammad conversed with Allah, Allah Almighty commanded: “Oh Muhammad! If someone prays two rak’a in Jami al-Sughra (Small Mosque) in the world with pure intentions and grants its good deeds to you, I will make him or her eligible for Heaven, even if that person has been destroyed by sin. And I will grant that person the good deeds of seventy rak’a for every two rak’a. And whoever takes part in praying in that mosque, in Hagia Sophia, I will grant the good deeds of four prophets. One of these prophets is Adam, one of them is Noah, the third is Abraham, and the fourth one is you, oh Muhammad!”
After bidding farewell to Gabriel and returning from the Miraj, Prophet Muhammad described Hagia Sophia to his Companions. They all felt a deep love for Hagia Sophia as a result of what they had been told, and they said: “Inshallah, may I pray in that pleasant maqam before I die.”
According to one of the hadith books, Mesâbîh, there are still two angels in the mosque of Hagia Sophia. These two angels venerate Allah day and night and will circumambulate under the domes of Hagia Sophia until the Day of Judgment.4
The important point emphasized in the legend is that as one of the most significant symbols of Istanbul, Hagia Sophia had always possessed an Islamic identity and it was considered sacred in the eyes of Muslims.
The Conquest of Constantinople and Khidr
The conquest of Constantinople, the sign of a new era in world history, has been subject to numerous legends, particularly concerning the conquerors; people were not able to remain indifferent to this event. These legends have been an enduring part of the collective memory as they have been transferred down the generations through written and oral cultural environments. It is possible to find these legends in many written sources.
In Evliyalar Ansiklopedisi, a rare legend about the conquest of Constantinople, not found in other sources, was recorded:
At a moment when Byzantium was still well-supported and hopes were fading in the ranks of the Ottoman army during the battle, Sultan Mehmed sent his vizier Veliyüddîn Ahmed Pasha to Akşemseddin, saying: “Ask Sheikh Efendi, is there any hope of attacking Constantinople and winning a victory against the enemy?” Akşemseddin replied: “If so many Muslims and veterans (ghazi) from the umma of Muhammad attack a fortress of non-believers, Inshallah, the victory will be won.”
Not content with this very general reply, Sultan Mehmed sent Veliyüddin Ahmed Pasha to Akşemseddin once more and said: “Let him set a time!” Akşemseddin started contemplating. He bowed his head and begged Allah for an answer. His blessed face sweetened. Then raising his face, he said, “On the twentieth day of Jumada al-Awwal this year, during the dawn, they shall walk on that side with faith and ardor. That day Constantinople will be conquered, and the city will be filled with the sound of the call to prayer!” He also sent a letter to the young sultan. In his letter, he said, “The servant takes precautions, Allah delivers, the proof is permanent.” Allah possesses the judgment but the servant should not fail to make as great an effort as he can. The faithful ones of the Prophet and his Companions are the same.” In this way, Akşemseddin was there giving glad tidings about the conquest of the city and advising the sultan about how to behave.
Finally, the time that Akşemseddin had spoken of came. While Sultan Mehmed I was leading his army, he requested a prayer from his mentor Akşemseddin. Akşemseddin said: “Oh Scholar Ahmed! Ask for benevolence! Hereby, repent and supplicate to Allah!” After that, Akşemseddin entered his tent, ordered that no one be allowed inside, and closed the door.
Janissaries, azab, dalkılıç soldiers, serdengeçti, raiders, volunteers, and saints flooded to Istanbul on the command of Sultan Mehmed I. Mehmed Khan wished his mentor Akşemseddin to be next to him and sent him a message. When Akşemseddin did not come, the sultan went to the tent. The tent was closed on all sides. Sultan Mehmed I approached the tent and took out his dagger. He cut a small piece from the tent and made a hole small enough to see through. When he looked inside, he saw his mentor Akşemseddin prostrated, his imama fallen from his head, his white hair and beard shining with a divine light. His white hair and white beard had mingled with the soil. When Sultan Mehmed saw his mentor Akşemseddin praying to Allah with such a lofty and divine attitude, he turned around. When he looked at the fortress, he saw a group with white cloaks entering the fort along with the Turkish soldiers who were climbing the city walls. Soon the soldiers of the conqueror overcame the city walls and entered the city. This was how the conquest of Constantinople and the great miracle of the Prophet were realized.
Istanbul was conquered around eight in the morning. Sultan Mehmed entered the city around noon through Topkapı. When they asked Akşemseddin, “How did you know when Constantinople was to be conquered?” he replied, “We had set up the time for the conquest of Constantinople with my Brother Khidr. On the day when Constantinople was conquered, I saw Khidr entering the city with a group of saints. After the city was conquered, I saw my brother Khidr on the city walls, crossing his legs.5
The conquest of Constantinople has been related in a number of ways in Byzantine and Turkish legends. The siege of Constantinople by the Turkish army and Mehmed II were described as God’s turning away from the Byzantine Empire and the Greek people, as well as the termination of His protection of the city. On the other hand, in Turkish legends, Allah was always with the Muslim Turkish army and was its greatest supporter. The Turkish army was able to conquer Constantinople only with the help of this divine support.
When all these legends are examined, it can be seen that Constantinople/Istanbul, as the main location of the legend, was always sanctified, and brought to the fore as the location of the legends.
The Construction of Süleymaniye Mosque
The Süleymaniye Complex and Mosque, ordered by Sultan Süleyman I and built by Koca Sinan is, without a doubt, an Ottoman architectural work of art. However, it is not fair to consider Süleymaniye Mosque only as an architectural opus; it occupies a significant place historically and architecturally. The architectural structures that make up the identity of a city are treasured to the extent that they are valued by their residents. Many legends have been formed within the oral cultural tradition surrounding Süleymaniye Mosque, beginning from the sixteenth century, when the mosque was built, up until the present day. These legends have been transmitted as they were preserved in oral and written sources.
The following legend is also available in oral sources in different versions, and it is related with enriched elements in Abide Şahsiyetleri ve Müesseseleriyle Osmanlı by Osman Nuri Topbaş:
When Sultan Süleyman decided to build Süleymaniye Mosque, he had a dream about Prophet Muhammad. Prophet Muhammad showed him where to build the mosque. He also gave the sultan information on how to build the internal and external parts of the mosque. He related these things in a detailed manner, such as, “Erect the pulpit here and the altar over there!” Waking up from the dream with great joy and enthusiasm, the sultan gave thanks to Allah with tears of joy.
The next day, he immediately went to the spot Prophet Muhammad had indicated, and called Koca Sinan, telling him that he wanted to build a mosque there. Koca Sinan responded as if he expecting this, saying,
Oh my Majesty! We can build the mosque in this way, with the altar there and the pulpit here.” In fact, Koca Sinan was saying exactly what Prophet Muhammad had said to the sultan the night before. Slightly smiling, the sultan glanced at Sinan and said, “Oh Sinan! It seems as if you are aware of my dream!” Koca Sinan responded, implying that he had had the same dream: “My Majesty! I was also there in your blessed dream and I was following two steps behind you!” At that moment, the sultan’s enthusiasm and excitement grew even greater, and he immediately exclaimed: “Then begin the construction of the mosque as soon as possible!” Expecting this command, Koca Sinan completed his preparations without any delay and the construction of the serene sanctuary started with the sheikh ul-Islam Ebusuud Efendi putting in the first stone of the foundation.6
Such legends, particularly those about mosques which have been conveyed over the generations and centuries, are considered to have a significant function in terms of sustaining the collective memory and protecting the “Muslim Turkish” identity of Istanbul. The moral values of Islam are thus rendered as social norms within society.
Aslan, Ferhat, “Tarihî Yarımada’nın Kuruluş Efsaneleri”, 3. Uluslararası Tarihi Yarımada Sempozyumu, Istanbul: Eminönü Belediyes and Haliç Belediyeler Birliği, 2008.
Aslan, Ferhat, İstanbul’un 100 Efsanesi, Istanbul: İstanbul Büyükşehir Belediyesi Kültür A.Ş., 2010.
Ergun, Metin, Türk Dünyası Efsanelerinde Değişme Motifi, Ankara: Türk Dil Kurumu, 1997, vol. 1.
Sakaoğlu, Saim, Anadolu Türk Efsanelerinde Taş Kesilme Motifi ve Bu Efsanelerin Tip Kataloğu, Ankara: Milli Folklor Araştırma Dairesi, 1980.
Schiltberger, Johannes, Türkler ve Tatarlar Arasında (1394-1427), tr. Turgut Akpınar, 3. ed., Istanbul: İletişim Yayınları, 1997, pp. 184-185.
1 Hans Hermann Russack, “Istanbul ve Efsaneleri”, Istanbul:1453–1953 (appendix to Resimli Hayat), Istanbul: Yapı ve Kredi Bankası, 1953, pp. 32-33.
2 http://www.kommik.com/htm/guzc.htm (Accessed June 5, 2013).
3 Celâlzâde Mustafa Çelebi, Târîh-i Kal‘a-ı Istanbul ve Ma‘bed-i Câmi-i Ayasofya, İstanbul Belediyesi Atatürk Library, Muallim Cevdet, no. 0138, ff. 92b-93b.
4 Ferhat Aslan, Ayasofya Efsaneleri, Istanbul:İstanbul 2010 Avrupa Kültür Başkenti Ajansı and Kültür Sanat Basımevi, 2011, p. 256.
5 Evliyalar Ansiklopedisi, Istanbul: Türkiye Gazetesi, 1992, vol. 2, p. 410.
6 Osman Nuri Topbaş, Abide Şahsiyetleri ve Müesseseleriyle Osmanlı, Istanbul: Altınoluk, 1999, pp. 381-382.