The Legends Behind The Foundation of Istanbul

Every magnificent city is surrounded by mystery. Not only the mystery that emanates from its already astounding atmosphere, but also the legends and myths behind its foundation. For a city […]

Every magnificent city is surrounded by mystery. Not only the mystery that emanates from its already astounding atmosphere, but also the legends and myths behind its foundation. For a city like Istanbul with such a cultural magnitude, it is seminal to know something about the cradle of its creation. Otherwise as a tourist, one will simply visit a few common places whilst missing out on the grains of civilisation and culture that are spread in different corners of Istanbul.  It is only a trained eye that can observe these subtle aspects.

In our article today, we will look at the three most significant myths or legends behind the evolution of the great city of Istanbul, starting from the ancient times through to the most recent perceptions.

The Legend of the fairies

Before the creation of humans, fairies are said to have lived on earth. Their lifestyle was quite similar to the human life of today especially when it came to organising celebrations like wedding ceremonies. In one of the fairies, two fairies fell in love and wanted to get married. The father of the girl gave a precondition that the boy’s father would construct a beautiful palace for the future bride and groom in the most beautiful part of the world. Upon agreeing to this precondition, the groom’s father set out to travel around the world looking for a magnificent spot. He settled in Istanbul thus building a beautiful palace for his son and future bride in Istanbul. On completion of the palace, the groom’s father sent a message to the girl’s father informing him about the palace and its beauty. The girl’s father was very much in awe of the palace’s beauty and Istanbul where the palace had been built that he agreed to give his daughter’s hand in marriage. It is said that Istanbul was then founded in the Bosphorus which is one of the world’s most beautiful places.

Megaryan Byzas’ legend

According to this legend, the Megarians living in Greece decided to found a city under the leadership of Byzas. They however did not know where they could found the city. Upon consultation with the oracle of Delphi, the oracle replied that “There is an area across the land of the blind, found the city on that area”. The Megarians then set out to find the land of the blind under the leadership of their president going as far as the coasts of what is today known as Sarayburnu. Reaching here, they were captivated by the unique beauty of the scenery. Byzas later caught sight of Kadıköy and his thoughts were that it was surely the land of the blind, since the people who had left this beautiful spot and settled on the opposite coast must certainly have been blind. Remembering oracle’s words “there is a place across the land of the blind”, Byzas was convinced that he had found the place he was looking for. He was determined to build his city on this unique land with seven hills that within no time, the city was founded and named after its first founder Byzas.

Although it’s a legend about the foundation of a city that we have inherited over ages in different forms, it does not cast any real light on the facts surrounding the initial foundation of the city. According to a much older local legend, the Thracian king Byzas who was the son of the nymph Semestra married Phidaleia, daughter of Barbyzos, king of the region near Istanbul. It is this lady who is said to have founded Byzantium or Istanbul.

The Legend relating to Zeus’ lover

According to another legend quite similar to the legend of the Megaryan Byzas, Zeus’ lover, the chief of all the ancient Greek gods decided to turn herself into a cow so as to escape the wrath of Zeus’ vengeful wife Hera. During her flight, she gave birth to a daughter Keroessa on the banks of the Golden Horn. Keroessa was brought up by the nymph Semestra. In the course of events, she gave birth to the son of the sea god Poseidon whom she named Byzas. Byzas was brought up by the naiad Byzia.  It is possible to corroborate this legend with Istanbul’s geography as one will encounter the names Byzas and Keroessa in various forms among the names of very old places in Anatolia. This perhaps demonstrates that the legend originates from events that took place in the depths of Anatolia’s history.

The first legend could be connected to the Greek migrations that took place between 750 and 550 BC, which are certainly not related to the city’s initial foundation. The probability is that during these migrations, a new Greek city was founded around 660 BC in what is now Istanbul circa. And it is from there that the present city developed. These legends fortify the pleasant uncertainty specific to this city of wonder which keeps its habitants and visitors connected at all times. It is an undeniable aura of mystery that continues to float over the architectural grandeur of Istanbul, amplifying its beauty and eternal metamorphosis.

1 comment

  1. Avatar photo
    Yusuf Eradam

    While searching for poems written for and about Istanbul, has been this morning’s beautiful surprise for me. Thank you, Marin, and all the contributors. I am an independent scholar and poet, writer, translator…and I am hoping to contribute too, with a poem or an article soon.
    All the best from Cihangir.

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