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 built 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 popular cafe and restaurant that attracts tourists 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, which at times she was used and misused for several purposes ;but she also endured and became the subject of several myths, legends 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 when Egyptian Queen Cleopatra left her tiny footsteps in the sands of several beaches in the Aegean and Mediterranean; they now have her name. The name “Olympus” can be found on both sides of the Anatolian and Greek peninsula on several mountains for example, Mount Olympus. The lighthouse and the story of Hero and Leander was attributed to at least 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 the ancient Greek poet, Musaios (who lived well before Homeros also known as Homer), says that 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, built 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. Leander first saw Hero, during an Aphrodite ritual,and immediately fell in love with her. Every night, Leander would swim across the straits; and Hero would light a torch atop the tower to guide her lover to the shore.
During a long, warm summer,the two lovers met every night. Hero,the priestess of Aphrodite, who was the goddess of pure love, allows Leander to 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 or not, the strong winds extinguished the fire of the torch Hero was holding and Leander loses his way, or that the waves were 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 becomes 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. Then the tale was later passed on by the Byzantines as being at the straits of Bosphorus; therefore, attributing to it being named 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 foretell 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 prophecy, the Sultan orders a tower to be built in the middle of the Bosphorus, knowing that it would be isolated from the mainland and that no snake could 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 of fruit, as a birthday gift. As the princess is tasting some of her favorite fruit, 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 was put in an iron casket and buried under the dome of Hagia Sophia.
Whether or not, either of these legends has 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. One 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 “mosqued” skyline of the old city. Or you can make reservations at the Restaurant and enjoy the night scene on the European side Pera, having a glass of Raki, Turkish anise flavored drink,and eating fresh fish- caught right in the waters of Bosphorus. In any case, “you will not be disappointed.”