• Do Not Mess With the Janissaries’ Coffee Houses

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    August 19th, 2010adminByzantines, History, Istanbul, Ottomans, Touristy Stuff
    Yedikule Towers in Istanbul

    Yedikule Towers in Istanbul

    I’m fascinated by dungeons and prisons. When I visited the Torture Museum in Prague, I was appalled by the torture kitsch — real instruments of medieval torture refashioned into a tourist experience! But I was also captivated. I remember it all: the spears for impalement, the horrific bull, first developed in Greece, and the contraptions to humiliate loose and disloyal women.

    Recently, my friend, Baris, took me to Yedikule Fortress. Like me, he’s a history buff and, when we first met, we talked about the Ottoman sacking of Constantinople in 1453. So, he was a perfect companion to visit Yedikule Fortress, also called “The Fortress of Seven Towers” in Ottoman times.

    Tower Detail

    Tower Detail, probably Ottoman rather than Byzantine due to the curved structure.

    But, before it was Ottoman, it was Byzantine. Like many buildings in Istanbul (most famously, the Haghia Sophia), this fortress had two lives — first under the Byzantines, then under the Ottomans.

    Originally, it was known as the “Golden Gate,” constructed in the 5th century by the Byzantine emperors, Theodosius I and Theodosius II. This gate connected the famed Roman road of Europe to Constantinople. Flanked by four towers, the gate served as the official ceremonial entrance into the city for the emperor. On rare occasions, papal delegates were allowed entrance. But it was meant for the emperor.  To be honest, I didn’t take any pictures of the “Golden Gate” because I wasn’t even sure if I knew which gate was the “Golden” one. It was so unceremonial, so deteriorated and past its prime, that I just looked and wondered. I thought, Who went through those gates? Who cheered for the emperors? There’s always a strange sense of nostalgia (for a place I have never been to and a time I will never truly know) when I encounter ruins.

    Maybe I’ll take pictures of the gate next time.

    When the Ottomans sacked Constantinople, Mehmet the Conqueror added three more towers. The fortress was thus expanded to include a treasury and prison. This dungeon housed many important people. Most famously, it housed the Ottoman sultan, Osman II. After trying to reorganize the janissaries, Osman II was imprisoned and strangled by his elite soldiers in 1622.

    I found this very interesting — yet very gruesome — description of events on Wikipedia:

    Probably the first Sultan to identify and attempt to tackle the Janissaries as a praetorian institution doing more harm than good to the modern empire, Osman II closed their coffee shops (the gathering points for conspiracies against the throne) and started planning to create a new, loyal and ethnic Turkic army consisting of Anatolian, Mesopotamian and Egyptian Turks and Turkmens. The result was a palace uprising by the janissaries, who promptly imprisoned the young sultan. When an executioner was sent to strangle him at Yedikule, Istanbul, Osman II refused to give in and started fighting the man and was only subdued when he was hit on his back with the rear end of an axe by one of his imprisoners. After that he was strangled with a bowstring.

    UGH!

    Looking down at Istanbul from the fortress. I wondered what the city looked like 1500 years ago, when it was first constructed ...or 500 years ago, when Mehmet expanded the fortress.

    Anyway, the fortress and dungeon is a big, scary thing. Made up on hulking gray stone, it is a massive building, overlooking the Black Sea.

    Here are some photos taken from inside the dungeon!

    The damp dungeon where Osman II was (probably?) imprisoned. There were no placards or tourist-friendly explanations inside. So, we were left to our devices -- and our own imaginations.

    At least the dungeon had an open top, bringing in some sunlight. Baris and I talked about the fact that this set-up could impact someone's final moments. Maybe the bright sunlight made the surroundings less grim? Maybe it gave someone a sense of the approaching afterlife? I don't know...

    One last thing I wanted to add: We were ALONE! There were two other people, a couple from Florence. But they soon left. And we had the entire fortress to ourselves! My god. Imagine having ANY tourist attraction to yourself. This may have been the first time I have had such an experience. I stopped feeling like a stupid tourist sheep, following the herd. And I began to just enjoy history, having it all to myself.

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