Updated: Nov 25, 2022
“A myth is an ancient story or set of stories, especially explaining the early history of a group of people or about natural events and facts.”
(Cambridge Online Dictionary)
Istanbul, with its history of thousands of years, is no stranger to myths. In this article, you will find three myths that tell the story of how Istanbul came to be the city that we know today.
1- The Myth of The Golden Horn
Let’s start with one of the most well-known myths about Istanbul. The Golden Horn, or better known as Haliç, is an inlet between the plateaus of Istanbul and Beyoğlu. It separates the historical center of the city (or “Old Istanbul”) from the rest. According to the myth, Zeus, the ruler god and Hera’s husband, has an affair with a woman named Io. After Hera finds out about the affair, Zeus has to turn Io into a cow in order to hide her and protect her from Hera’s wrath. Seeing this, Hera sends a gadfly that continuously stings Io and follows her wherever she goes. Io, to escape from the fly, crosses the path between the Sea of Marmara and the Black sea, which results in that path being called “Bosphorus” (literally meaning “cow strait”). She then comes to the Golden Horn and gives birth to her daughter Ceroessa. The name Ceroessa changes and distorts over time, and becomes “Ceras” which means “horn” in Ancient Greek. So, people start to call Ceroessa’s place of birth ”Khrysokeras” which means the Golden Horn.
2- The Founding of Byzantion
This myth tells the story of how Byzantion was founded by Ceroessa’s son Byzas. After her birth, Io’s daughter Ceroessa is brought up by nymphs. She later has intercourse with Poseidon (or, according to an alternative version of the myth, King Nisos) and gives birth to Byzas.
During the seventh century BC., the state of Megara (a city-state near Athens) is searching for sites to set up colonies. Byzas is advised by the oracle of Delphi (a famous Greek prophet who worships Apollo) to seek “the land opposite the city of the blind”. Although confused, Byzas decides to sail and search for “the city of the blind”. Upon reaching the Bosphorus, he discovers the Golden Horn which is a deep harbor and thus is protected from strong winds.
He then sails towards the opposite (Anatolian) side of the Bosphorus and immediately understands what the oracle of Delphi means: people living there were not blind in the literal sense but they were blind for not noticing the advantages of the European shore. Thus, Byzas decides to settle on the European side of the Bosphorus and names this new city “Byzantion”.
3- The Symplegades
In Greek mythology, the Symplegades were a pair of rocks that clashed together whenever a ship tried to sail through them. During their journey, Jason and the Argonauts succeeded in passing through the Symplegades by listening to Phineus’ advice.
Phineus tells the Argonauts to let a dove fly in order to see if it is possible for the ship Argo to pass through. While flying between the rocks, the dove’s tail gets nipped but it makes it out alive. Seeing that, the Argonauts start rowing with all their might. The speed of their rowing combined with Hera’s help, they pass through only with the very back of the ship being damaged. After this success, the rocks never clash again.
In the past, the Symplegades were confused with the Planktai (“Wandering Rocks”) in Homer’s Circe but recently, the Planktai were sited to be in Western Mediterranean while the Symplegades were at the Bosphorus — one of them at the European side, off the shore of Rumelifeneri and the other at the Asian side, off the shore of Anadolufeneri.
The clashing of the rocks can be interpreted as tidal waves strong enough to wreck ships. Nowadays, the Sea of Marmara seems to be a lot calmer than it used to be a couple of thousands of years ago.
4- The Myths about Maiden’s Tower
Maiden’s Tower is situated on a small islet, about 200 meters from the coast of Üsküdar. It was originally built in the medieval period during the reign of the Byzantine Emperor Alexius Comnenus, was destroyed because of a fire in 1721 and then rebuilt with the orders of Damad İbrahim Paşa.
Maiden’s Tower has a lot of myths about it but today we will take a look at three that are the most well-known.
5. The Emperor’s Daughter’s Story
Among all of the myths about Maiden’s Tower, this one is the most popular. According to the myth, an emperor is told by an oracle that his beloved daughter will die because of a venomous snake’s bite. Upon hearing this, he orders a tower to be built in the middle of the sea. The princess lives there peacefully for years until she is struck by a very serious illness.
The people of the country are happy to hear that their princess has recovered from her illness and is doing well so they send her various gifts to show her their relief. Among these gifts is a basket of fruits in which hides a tiny snake. After the princess goes to sleep, the snake gets out of the basket and bites her. The princess is killed by a snake just like in the prophecy.
6. The Myth of Leander and Hero
Leander’s Tower is an alternative name for Maiden’s Tower and it comes from the myth of Leander and Hero. Leander from Abydos is madly in love with Hero who resides in a tower in Sestos, on the European side of the Hellespont (today known as Dardanelles). Leander swims across the Hellespont every night to be with Hero and Hero lights a candle each night to help Leander navigate through the water.
The couple agrees on discontinuing this routine during winter because of the strong winds and large waves but when Leander sees Hero in the tower with her candle lit, he decides to swim to her once again. Strong winds blow Hero’s candle out and soon Leander loses his way. The waves swallow him and he dies a painful death. Upon hearing about her lover’s death, Hero is overcome with grief. She commits suicide by throwing herself off her tower to be with Leander in death.
What is very interesting about this myth is that it takes place at Hellespont and not at the Bosphorus where Maiden’s Tower is located. In the past, Leander’s Tower was confused with Maiden’s Tower, so much so that in the end, Leander’s Tower became another name for it.
7. The Myth of Battal Gazi
Battal Gazi was a Turkish warrior during the eighth century. In this story, Battal Gazi stands and waits in front of the emperor’s palace every day for seven years. He says it is because he wants to conquer Istanbul but people know that it is actually because he is in love with the emperor’s daughter.
One day, Battal Gazi has to leave Istanbul to go to war in Damascus. After his departure, the emperor orders a tower to be built to hide her daughter from Battal Gazi but upon returning from Damascus, Battal Gazi breaks into the tower, steals the emperor’s treasures and runs away with the emperor’s daughter.
Now that we have covered the myths about Istanbul, we hope that you see Istanbul in a new light — as a magical land where Io found peace, as the city to which Byzas’ prophecy led, and as the place where the Argonauts defeated the Symplegades. After all, it is a charming city with a lot of unexpected history, isn’t it?
Hera and Io. Nicolaes Pietersz. Berchem the Younger, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Nicolaes_Pietersz._Berchem_the_Younger_-_Hera_and_Io,_1669.jpg, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons, Accessed 17 Nov. 2022.
Map of Byzantine. Jniemenmaa, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Constantinople.png, CC BY-SA 3.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/, via Wikimedia Commons, Accessed 17 Nov. 2022.
Argo. Constantine Volanakis, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Constantine_Volanakis_Argo.jpg, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons, Accessed 17 Nov. 2022.
Kayalıklar…, Sinan Şahin, https://web.archive.org/web/20161101075805/http://www.panoramio.com/photo/119188515, CC BY 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/deed.en>, via Wikimedia Commons, Accessed 17 Nov. 2022.
Tekin, O. (1996). The Pelamydes of Byzantium and the Golden Horn. Anadolu Araştırmaları, 469-478
Alsan, Ş. (2018). HALİÇ KÜLTÜRÜNÜN EĞLENCE VE MESİRE KİMLİĞİNDEN, SANAYİ DEVRİMİ KİMLİĞİNE DÖNÜŞÜM SÜRECİ ÜZERİNE BİR ARAŞTIRMA. Motif Akademi Halkbilimi Dergisi , 11 (24) , 203-219 . DOI: 10.12981/mahder.471548
Bator, R. (2000). Daily Life in Ancient and Modern Istanbul. Lerner Publications
Hunter, R. (2016). Symplegades. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Classics
Smid, T. (1970). Tsunamis in Greek Literature. Greece and Rome, 17(1), 100-104. doi:10.1017/S0017383500017393