When thinking of cities enclosed by walls, Turkey is not necessarily the country that most readily springs to mind, with the one great exception of İstanbul wheret from Byzantine times onwards, huge walls wrapped themselves around what was first Byzantium and then Constantinople. But in actual fact, Turkey is home to several once-walled cities even though later development sometimes manages to obscure that fact.
Here, then, for would-be wall-walkers, are some of the most impressive examples.
By far the finest surviving city walls are those that wrap around Old İstanbul. These walls date back in origin to the reign of the Byzantine Emperor Theodosius, when they were built in 413 and then hastily rebuilt in 447 after an earthquake. They were much patched-up and strengthened throughout the Middle Ages with some especially dramatic new towers added at the point where the walls run down to the Golden Horn in Ayvansaray. The walls were so strong that they were only breached twice: once in 1204 by Crusaders, who had forgotten that their objective was meant to be the Holy Land, and then again, more famously, in 1453 when the army of Mehmed the Conqueror burst through them to change the course of history.
The most dramatic surviving fortifications are the remains of the land walls that run from Mermerkule on the shores of the Sea of Marmara right round to Ayvansaray on the Golden Horn. Completely exposed to invaders, these walls were the most heavily defended and were built in two layers with a ditch in between them. It was always assumed that a successful attack from the water was less likely, so although walls were also built along the Sea of Marmara and the Golden Horn, they were only one layer deep and so much less dramatic. Long stretches of the Propontine walls along the Marmara also still survive, although beside the Golden Horn, they’ve mainly been torn down or have had houses built right on top of them.
It’s still possible to walk the entire length of the land walls and doing so will give you a chance to compare stretches that have been left completely unrestored and others (for example, around Belgradkapı) that have been very crudely patched-up. As you go, look out for pieces of old Roman and Byzantine masonry and inscribed carvings that were casually swept up for reuse as building materials.
To walk the entire length of the land walls takes up to seven hours, depending on how often you pause for a break. Because of the busy main roads around Mermerkule, the best starting point is slightly inland at Yedikule, which is accessible on the banliyö (suburban) train line from Cankurtaran (Sultanahmet). If you want to start at the Ayvansaray end, buses from Eminönü and Taksim will get you there.
Should it really be regarded as a walled city? It may be debatable but the hillside Hisar (castle) area of Ankara certainly feels like a surviving walled city and plenty of people still live tucked up inside its protective arms. This is one of the oldest parts of Ankara with many reminders of the Middle Ages dotted about amid the crumbling Ottoman houses. The walls themselves date back in part to the seventh century and they’re studded with pieces of masonry from Roman and Byzantine times. In places you can climb up onto the top of them although there are no railings, which makes this a very bad idea for the faint-hearted (or those with children). A stay at the lovely Angora House Hotel (Tel: 0312-309 8380) will let you get a feel for what life is like in this enclosed arena.
Most visitors to Bursa could be forgiven for rubbishing the idea that it was ever a walled city. However, recent restorative efforts have been concentrated on the Hisar area, which, like the Ankara Hisar, is a little, enclosed enclave full of pretty, old houses and quaint, old mosques. If you go to visit the tombs of Osman and Orhan, the founders of the Ottoman dynasty, you won’t be able to miss the main entrance, a soaring gateway set into a restored stretch of wall immediately across the road. Stay at the lovely Kitap Evi (Tel: 0224-225 4160) or the Safran Hotel (Tel: 0224-224 7216) and the walls will be right on your doorstep.
The walls that will become familiar to the largest number of package holidaymakers are those of Kaleiçi, the old “inner castle” area of Antalya, one of the biggest resorts on the Turquoise Coast. As with the walled areas of Ankara and Bursa, Kaleiçi is a historic haven tucked away inside a sprawling, modern city, the walls having offered protection to remains dating back to the Roman period from the hands of over-enthusiastic developers. As in Istanbul, the walled area of Antalya ran right down to the water, and these days this is an especially attractive area in which to stay, full of hotels and restaurants to suit all budgets and with spectacular views out to sea.
Don’t want to stray far from İstanbul? Well, on the northern shore of Thracian Turkey the sleepy, little beach resort of Kıyıköy was also once surrounded by walls. Even today you venture into the main part of town via a gate dating back to the sixth century.
For those who’d like to be able to make a complete circuit of an old walled city, the best place to do so is İznik, a small, lakeside town close to Bursa which has managed to hang on to most of its predominantly Byzantine walls, albeit with holes punched through them to facilitate modern traffic flows. Even if you don’t want to walk all the way round them, you will probably enjoy looking at the imposing İstanbul and Lefke gates, where absolute security was provided by triple layers of fortification; if you walk from the Lefke Gate to the Yenişehir Gate, you will do so in the shadow of walls that still soar in places to 13-meters high. As in İstanbul and Ankara, the walls form an open-air museum studded with pieces of Roman and Byzantine masonry.
Visitors to the small Black Sea town of Sinop sometimes manage to overlook that this too was once a walled enclave, despite the fact that long stretches of walls that date back in origin to 72 BC survive both on the sea side of the town and inland, near the old prison.
These days Kayseri is so much a boom town that it’s easy to forget that it too was once a walled city hunkered down behind brooding, basalt walls. These have been much patched up since the Emperor Justinian first had them built in the sixth century; in particular they were virtually rebuilt in the 13th century during the reign of the Selçuk Sultan Alaadin Keykubad I. A long stretch now trundles along right beside the flashy new tramline. As in Diyarbakır, a pocket within the walls formed a citadel which, for the time being, still houses a market, although plans exist to convert it into a museum.
Over in eastern Turkey, the most impressive walls are the huge basalt ones ringing Diyarbakır and extending for 5.5 kilometers. Dating back to Byzantine times, they were much strengthened and extended in the Selçuk and Beylik eras. Like those of İznik, these walls survive virtually intact and you can happily (if carefully) follow them for long stretches, pausing every now and then to admire the huge gates and towers with which they were blessed.
When it comes to Turkey’s many abandoned settlements, the most imposing remains of ancient walls are those that used to ring Ani, the old Armenian city way over in the north-east near Kars. Built in a striking checkerboard pattern of brown and black, these primarily 11th-century walls have been partially restored in recent years, but the sight of the long line-up of round towers is not one to be forgotten in a hurry.