Attached to a few legends adding to its fame, the Maiden’s Tower is one of the iconic landmarks on Istanbul’s skyline and has a rich history dating back to the fourth century. Locally known as the Kız Kulesi Üsküda, the tower standing since the medieval Byzantine period on a small rocky islet in the middle of the mighty Bosphorus River between Europe and Asia, has witnessed many ages, many civilizations, and many cultures, but most importantly, many romances as well. Situated approximately 650 feet (200 m) from the coast of Üsküdar in Istanbul, it is rather a small and humble monument among the dominating architectural grandeur around it. But its romantic setting and the heartbreaking mythical history and exciting modern tales about it made it an interesting spot to bring people from all over the world.
tt is considered that probably, after the naval victory at Cyzicus in 410 BC, during the Peloponnesian War, the ancient Athenian general Alcibiades built a custom station on a small rock in front of Chrysopolis, today’s Uskudar, for ships coming from the Black Sea. Later, in 1110 AD, Byzantine Emperor Manuel Comnenus built two defensive towers in the Bosphorus, one on the site of the present Maiden’s Tower and the other on the European shore of Sarayburnu, and connected the two towers with a strong iron chain, intending to prevent the invaders, pirates and smugglers. To end the process, the islet was connected to the Asiatic shore with a defense wall, the underwater remains of which are still visible.
The tower was pulled down after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453 and was replaced with a wooden structure, which was subsequently destroyed by a fire in 1721. Since then it was used as a lighthouse, and the surrounding walls were repaired in 1731 and 1734, until it was erected in stone in 1763. Designed by Istanbul’s head architect Nevşehirli Damat İbrahim Paşa, the stone tower was used by the Ottoman Turks as a watchtower during the reign of Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror. The lead-covered dome and a lantern were added later.
According to a legendary story, back to the period when Istanbul was under the sovereignty of Athens, the Kingdom of Athens sent 40 ships under the command of Admiral Hares to protect the city against the possibility of an attack by King Philip of Macedonia. As luck would have it, Damalys, the beautiful accompanying wife of the Admiral, suddenly fell sick and died. She was buried in a grave that was carved on his order within the rocks on the islet, and subsequently, the Maiden’s Tower was built upon her altar.
Another popular story relating to the construction of the tower and its location is woven around a Byzantine emperor and a fortune teller. One day an oracle prophesied that the emperor would lose his much-beloved daughter on her 18th birthday by a venomous snake. The emperor, desperate to save his daughter and overcome the oracle, built a tower in the middle of the Bosphorus and arranged to keep his daughter there until her 18th birthday, believing that no snake could come close to her. As arranged, the princess was shifted to the tower, where she was frequently visited only by her father.
On the 18th birthday of the princess, the emperor was overcome with joy as he thought he could overcome the prophecy and visited his daughter with a basket of exotic fruits as her birthday gift. As the princess, delighted with her birth day gift, placed her hand in the basket, an asp that had been hiding among the fruit bit the young princess and she died instantly in her father’s arms. Till today, Maiden’s Tower keeps a basket of fruit on a table by the entrance as a remembrance of the fateful legend that bestows the place.
There was a time when Maiden’s Tower was known as Leander's Tower, which is linked with another mythological love story of Hero and Leander. While Hero, a priestess of Aphrodite living in a tower in Sestos on the European side of the Hellespont, today’s Dardanelles, Leander, a young man from Abydos lived on the opposite side of the strait. As they completely fell in love with each other, Leander used to swim across the Hellespont every night to be with her, and to help him to locate the tower through the darkness of the night Hero signaled him with a lamp from the top of her tower.
At first, Hero tried to abstain from sex, as she was a priestess of Aphrodite, but eventually surrendered and allowed Leander to make love to her, and a long hot summer of romantic trysts began between them. Finally, on a stormy winter night, while Leander was struggling against the vicious waves of the turbulent sea, the strong gusty wind blew out the light of the Hero’s lamp. Leander lost his way in the darkness and was drowned. The next day when Hero discovered his body, she felt that life without Leander would be unbearable for her, and she threw herself from the tower to embrace death.
During the 1830 cholera epidemic, the Maiden’s Tower was transformed into a quarantine hospital and a radio station. In 1964, the building was given over to the Ministry of Defence and then to the Maritime Enterprises in 1982. Following a number of renovations, today the tower has become a attractive place for the visitors, complete with a ground-floor restaurant offering traditional Turkish dishes, apart from the breathtaking 360 degree view of the Bosphorus and the old city, especially at night. The islet also has a museum which is free to visit.