Kız Kulesi (Maiden’s Tower) is one of the most beloved architectures of Istanbul. The legends surrounding the tower have intrigued the public for hundreds of years. As Turkish legend has it, an emperor was visited by an oracle upon the birth of his daughter. The oracle warned the emperor that his daughter will be bit by a venomous snake on her eighteenth birthday, so he ordered the construction of the tower and places his beautiful daughter there to stay until her eighteenth birthday. As the oracle cautioned, the fatal prediction came true, and the young girl was poisoned by a snake hidden in a basket. Kız Kulesi is further romanticized by the ancient myth of Hero and Leandros. According to legend, Leandros falls in love with the virgin maiden of the tower, the most beautiful Hero. The couple decide they can’t bear to live without seeing each other, so they devise a solution. Hero builds a fire to help guide Leandros as he swims to the tower each night. One day, Hero has a problem building the fire, causing Leandros to loses his way and drown at sea. Stricken with grief, Hero throws herself from the tower to join her lover in death. This legend is now believed to have taken place in Dardanelles, or Çanakkale Boğazı. According to Sunay Akın, British poet Lord Byron knew this truth and jumped into the Dardanelle strait, bringing the legend to life on May 3rd, 1980.
Folklore aside, the real story of the tower originates from the Macedonian siege of Byzantium, or the Battle of Chaeronea. Athenian admiral Chares was sent to stave off Philip II from conquering Byzantium, and succeeded in defeating Philip II along the Bosporus. However, Chares’ beloved wife Damalis died during the battle. Chares placed his wife’s body on the rocks, a place where he would construct her mausoleum. Since the death of Damalis, the tower has been known as Kız Kulesi, which literally means the “tower of girl.” Other sources say that emperor Manuel Komnenos built two towers, one of which was Kız Kulesi, and the other being offshore of Topkapı Palace. Komnenos linked great chains between the towers, turning Kız Kulesi into a guard building. The tower’s first encounter with canons and gun powders dates back to Mehmet II. Kız Kulesi began as a defending structure of Istanbul, as it assumed control over the Bosporus. If any ship chose to ignore the tower’s warning sirens, the captains would soon find themselves in the cold water of Bosporus, with their ships sunk from Kız Kulesi’s cannon fire. In time, firing cannons from Kız Kulesi was used as a symbol to greet new sultans of the empire.
Kız Kulesi was also the first stop for the exiles banned by sultans or emperors. It must have been sad to witness the execution of Beşir Ağa, but also happy to see when its guest Hekimoğlu Ali Pasha was rid of the execution. The tower has survived one of the largest earthquakes Istanbul has ever experienced. Disaster struck on September 10th of 1509, leaving Kız Kulesi damaged and in need of repair. Sultan Selim remembered how Kız Kulesi greeted him as he passed through Istanbul from Üsküdar to be crowned. Selim restored the tower and made it a functioning lighthouse. Kız Kulesi was still used to welcome new sultans, but from then on was also used to guide ships along the Bosporus, as well as rescuing small crafts during stormy weather.
In 1719, Kız Kulesi was exhausted and in need have break. The wooden tower was badly burned by the fire used to guide sailors at sea. Kayserili Mehmet Ağa, famous architect of Tulip Era, recreated the tower and fashioning it with stone. Ağa’s renovations rendered the tower more beautiful than ever before. Furthermore, according to British admiral Adalphus Slade, Kız Kulesi became an isolation hospital when black death was claiming lives throughout Istanbul in the 1830s. As breakouts of the black death faded, the tower was able to resume its former job as a lighthouse.
At the beginning of the War of Independence in 1919, Kız Kulesi was able to bid farewell to Mustafa Kemal as he sailed off aboard the ship Bandırma. However, Mustafa Kemal’s new republic didn’t take kindly to Kız Kulesi. Similar to reforms made all across Turkey, Kız Kulesi was used to store cyanide, which is considered to be the worst purpose for the tower to date. The romantic tower housed cyanide until 1990. The following years were spent thinking of new duty for Kız Kulesi, ultimately deciding on another bad decision. Kız Kulesi was rented to private investment firms, and eventually was restored and turned into a restaurant. As a patron of the tower today, I prefer to watch it from the seashore. The only way to truly capture the charm of the Kız Kulesi is outside, across the waves.