Once, every town-dweller was born and lived and died within city walls. Paris, London, Rome, every historic city of significant importance built and maintained enormous, strong and resilient stone fortifications, which protected its inhabitants and kept the enemy at bay. Soldiers posted at watchtowers perched high above cobbled streets would be on alert for marauding tribes that might be thinking to conquer a richer, more plentiful society. From the fortified towns of Mughal India to the famously impenetrable citadel of Aleppo, the uncertain and ephemeral nature of peace in eras past meant ubiquitous defensive walls and forts, and in particular the main gate, was the first port of call for foreign traders and dignitaries.
To protect his new city of Constantinople from attack by both land and sea, Constantine the Great surrounded the entire prized metropolis with massive defences. Less than a century later construction began again further west, as Emperor Theodosius II needed to enclose to a burgeoning population whose dwellings were already forming hamlets and towns outside Nova Roma, as Constantinople was then known. Once seriously damaged by an earthquake that occurred roughly at the same time Attila the Hun approached with his pillaging armies, the defensive walls were swiftly repaired in a matter of months. Attila tried, but failed to make an impact. The walls stood proud as the last great fortifications of Antiquity, and no army ever broke through.
How the walls and districts enlosed within them have changed
The walls of Constantinople have not guarded the Byzantine Empire for many a century. Last bastion of the Holy Roman Empire, Byzantium gave way to the early Ottomans, who, before finally conquering Istanbul in 1453, were still unable to breach the Theodosian fortifications. Instead, they laid siege to the diminishing Byzantine power, cutting the city off from its supplies, and literally starving the last of its citizens. Still no-one could breach the city’s defence.
However, since the founding of the modern Turkish Republic last century, rapid population growth has forever relegated the walls, towers and gates to an architectural anachronism. And if sections lining the Marmara Sea and the banks of the Golden Horn no longer stand as proud – and indeed have been misused, abused and pulled down in places – they still often serve a function. Where soldiers and Ottoman janissaries replete with ferocious steel armoury may have once hindered your entrance to the city, today you are more likely to encounter an elderly gentleman seated on a small stool, chatting briefly with passers-by and feeding the pigeons. The walls themselves long ago became less a concrete and more an abstract reality, as pragmatic and forward-thinking Ottoman citizens, be it Muslim, Jew, Armenian, Greek or Rom, absorbed the ancient city’s defence system into their own kitchen and bedroom walls.
Today, within the stones that once demarcated the world’s richest and most powerful city between Portugal and China, lay historic Byzantine and Ottoman remnants. For tourists, Aya Sofia, Sultanahmet Camii (aka the Blue Mosque), the Grand Bazaar and the famous Cirağaoğlu Baths are old leftovers and ancient miscellany, along with tombs, Topkapı Palace, and wooden Ottoman houses that range from the dangerously decrepit to those operating as chic, boutique hotels.
Divan Yolu, once a wide, colonnaded thoroughfare dividing public squares and decorated with Greco-Roman statuary, now hosts the light-rail transporting thousands daily in each direction. International visitors pass near-invisible sections of the ancient city walls as they head towards the old Ottoman palace, guidebook in hand. Dowdy women from working class neighbourhoods descend on Eminönü, Istanbul’s largest, most atmospheric and ramshackle market, to purchase Turkish dietary staples, and though they’ve probably lived in the city their entire lives, they remain unaware of the scattered wall fragments protruding here and there.
Discovering little-known neighbourhoods
Within the easternmost portion of the Theodosian walls, probably the most impressive, and certainly among the best-restored portions of their entire length, sprawl two of this city’s most fascinating neighbourhoods: Sulukule and Balat. Unlike Istanbul’s other inner city regions and far removed from the cosmopolitan feel and shopping precincts on the opposite bank of the Golden Horn, these two neighbourhoods make for a stroll quite unlike any other in this town. ‘Belle époque’ facades of the buildings on İstiklal Caddesi, photos taken by almost every tourist, are absent from an area inhabited strictly by traditional Turkish families and one of the world’s oldest Rom communities.
As you pass through an enormous gate in the walls, you leave behind the roaring, unrelenting traffic of the modern city and enter a quieter, calmer way of life. In Sulukule – Water Tower in English – an impromptu assembly of gypsy children will instantly appear, grinning confidently. Everyone is younger than ten. Each girl carries a smaller sibling, each boy a plastic toy gun. Shoddily constructed abodes of vivid, garish colours stretch higgledy -piggledy up and around narrow, twisted lanes that are unsuitable for motorised traffic. Many homes have ingeniously incorporated the old city walls into their structure. Why build anew when the tried-and-tested product sits unused? Sulukule contains an endangered way of life that is disappearing; with plans to rehouse the Rom in generic and unforgiving and unsightly tower blocks already underway, the gentle character of the area is about to change forever.
A little further north and you arrive in Balat, another old world contained completely within the walls. The smell of fresh bread and sickly baklava dominate, and entire streets overflow with children playing football or simply chatting in the middle of the road. In front of the barbershop sits the stereotypical, moustachioed male, idling away the days over tea and simit, the pretzel-like bread ring smothered in sesame seeds. Balat is poor as Sulukule is forgotten, and within these 1500 year-old walls are protected a way of life that will probably not endure.
Whether you favour official government statistics or taxi drivers as your source of information, Istanbul counts among its inhabitants either ten or twenty millions souls. Balat and Sulukule would have once been the outermost district of a prosperous, medieval Byzantium, at a time when it was indeed ‘City of the World’s Desire’. Today, these former outer districts could not be any further inner-city, and the desire of both government and private developers will soon bring in architects of the banal and characterless, as bulldozers reduce the area to a blank slate. The famous walls of Antiquity can no longer protect all within its bounds. However, they will naturally continue to stand, long after the inhabitants of Balat and Sulukule move into their new tower blocks, and are forgotten.