One of the landmarks of Istanbul is the Leander's Tower, also called the Maiden's Tower (Kiz Kulesi), a lighthouse in the middle of the ocean where the straits of Bosphorus meets the Marmara Sea, somewhere between Europe and Asia; but closer to the Asian Scutari (Uskudar) then Sarayburnu or Seraglio point peninsula on the European side.
It is said, that the first building was erected there in 408 B.C. by an Athenian General Alcibiades as a customs house - tower for the incoming ships to the City ,from the Mediterranean and Aegean seas in the south, and the Black Sea in the north. It was also believed, that the land the tower was on, was connected to the peninsula, probably to the Asiatic side by what is called today ;" Salacak" a shore part of Uskudar stretching to the nearby "Harem" area. A large iron chain was stretched across, under the water and was connected to the European side, what is referred today as the Sarayburnu (Seraglio Point). A small portion of the chain, just large enough for the ships to pass through, was opened when the toll was paid and only then, the merchant ships could sail to the harbor and anchor by the Golden Horn or go up north through the straits of Bosphorus to the Black Sea, just like Jason and the Argonauts did in search of the "Golden fleece".
The first structure, as we know it today, was said to be build on this tiny island of land during the era of Byzantine Emperor Alexis Comnenus during the year 1100 A.D., in the form of a fortress. During the Ottoman times, the Tower was rebuilt several times and had numerous face lifts after fires and earthquakes .The Maiden's Tower was used for several purposes during the Ottomans' rule; as a house for the Mehteran; the famous Ottoman Army Band, as a defense fortress equipped with cannons, as a quarantine hospital during the 1830 cholera epidemic, as a lighthouse, and finally as a tourist attraction and a popular cafe and restaurant in current times.
The Maiden's Tower, or better yet the little island she is situated on, not only witnessed the rise and fall of the Byzantine, Roman and Ottoman Empires during her 2400 or more years of existence, and not only was she used and abused for several purposes by her owners ;but she was also the subject of several myths, legend and stories .
One such legend is about the love story between Hero and Leander( Leandros) which gave the tower one of her two names; Leander's Tower. Just like The Egyptian Queen Cleopatra left her tiny footsteps in the sands of several beaches in the Aegean and Mediterranean at which numerous beaches are named after her, and just like the Mount Olympus can be found on both sides of the Anatolian and Greek peninsula on several mountains, the lighthouse and the story of Hero and Leander was attributed to at least to another peninsula which is in close vicinity to Bosphorus on the south end of the Marmara Sea at Hellas point or Dardanelles.
This legend ,as told by Musaios who lived well before Homeros, says there existed a small town named Abydos in the Dardanelles on the Anatolian side of the straits. On the other side of the straits, there was another small town named Sestos, build by the ancient Miletus in 700.B.C.There at the tower of Sestos lived a beautiful young priestess of Aphrodite named Hero. On the other side of the straits in Sestos , lived a handsome young man named Leander , who saw Hero during an Aphrodite ritual and immediately fell in love with her. Every night , Leander would swim across the straits to be with her and Hero would light a torch on top of the tower to guide her lover to the shore.
During a long and warm summer, the two lovers met every night and Hero,the priestess of Aphrodite who was the goddess of pure love, allows Leander make love to her. One evening at the end of the summer a storm arises, waves are high and the waters of straits become ice cold. Leander jumps into the water to meet his lover on the other side of Hellas Point. Nobody knows what happened that night, whether the strong winds extinguished the fire of the torch Hero was holding and Leander loses his way, or the waves are too strong for Leander and as a result he drowns that night. According to the story the next morning Hero finds her lover's body on the shores of Sestos and being so distraught, she throws herself from the tower and dies .
It is very likely that this old legend as told first by Musaios happened at the straits of Dardanelles and the tale was later on passed on by the Byzantines to the straits of Bosphorus and attributed to the tower there, naming it the Leander's Tower.
The other legend giving the tower her other name: The Maiden's Tower is about a King or a Sultan and how he tries to protect his beloved daughter. Nobody knows who the King or Sultan was or what the daughter's name was for that matter, but it is said that she was beautiful and barely 18 years old. The story goes that one day before the girls eighteenth birthday her father assembles all the fortune tellers in his palace and asks them to prophesize his daughter's future. One of the oracles tells the father that his daughter will die on her eighteenth birthday by a snake bite. Alarmed by this prophesize, the Sultan orders a tower to be build in the middle of the Bosphorus , knowing that there isolated from the mainland no snake can reach his daughter. No one but the Sultan is allowed to visit the princess on the island . On the day of her eighteenth birthday the Sultan brings her a basket full fruit and grapes as a birthday gift. As the princess tries to taste some of her favorite grapes a tiny snake emerges from the bottom of the basket bites her and she dies as the fortune teller had predicted. According to some, the daughter then is put in an iron casket and buried under the dome of Hagia Sophia.
MOSQUE LINE OF THE CITY
Whether both of these legends have any truth in them is a mystery to us all. But today, the Leander's tower which has been a mystery to people of Istanbul and her visitors for centuries, is more accessible to tourists and Istanbulites than ever before. You can visit the island by taking a two minute boat ride from Salacak, sip a cup of tea in the Cafe' , breathe the fresh air of Bosphorus while marveling at the mosque line of the old city. Or you can make reservations at the Restaurant and enjoy the night scene of the European side Pera, while having a glass of Turkish drink Raki and eating fresh fish caught right of the waters of Bosphorus. In any case you will not be disappointed.