I am a romantic.
In my personal life I spend quite a lot of time giving awkward hugs, practicing my Mary Katherine Gallagher armpit impressions (sometimes not in that order), and not sharing cake. But, deep down, I am a romantic and a sucker for the classics – Humphrey Bogart, Puccini, Young MC, push pops, Robert Redford, Slime Time Live, and Van Morrison.
Around the ides of February, I usually spend the imminent days crafting elaborate paper Valentines and then enjoying the love, eating the sweets, and being a sap. Oh, I can be snarky with the best of ’em, but puppies and corny 90’s flicks light up my life.
Valentine’s — I welcome thee, Shmoopy. I’ll make fun of you to your face, but I’ll cherish your love in my heart.
I was not shocked to find that the elementary school tradition of refashioning Lucky Charms boxes into sweet Scooby-Doo-themed mailboxes is generally unobserved in Turkey. So, instead of imposing my western values (Prove love: give chocolate wrapped in 75-step origami), I went out in search of the Turkish love story. I went out to find the love story to make my heart swell and to make Hugh Grant do some serious repenting for “Two Weeks Notice.”
I got on a boat and I went to the legendary Maiden’s Tower.
Tradition dates the citadel’s origins to 411BC when Athenian General Alkibiades built a Bosphorus fortress for customs duties. From then, many legends are told about the tower, and the history of it is blurry.
The legend is about a sultan’s beloved daughter and a prophecy that predicts her death by the bite of a snake on her 18th birthday. Fearful of the prophecy, the sultan imprisons her in the tower until he is sure of her safety. The years pass and delighted by his success, the sultan sends his daughter an exotic fruit basket to celebrate. But hidden in the basket is a venomous snake. The asp bites the girl and the princess dies in her father’s arms just as the prophesy had warned.
The Legend of the Maiden’s Tower is…not too cheery. And as far as sentimental imprisonment fairy tales go, it’s rather blah.
Written history picks up again in 1110AD when Byzantine Emperor Alexius Comnenus builds a wooden tower for a customs station and ships are subject to Bosphorus TSA pat downs. In the 1453 seige of Constantinople the Ottomans rub Rome’s face in the dirt. They refashion the tower for the empire’s defense until the 1509 Istanbul earthquake, called “the Lesser Judgement Day.” The better part of the tower, along with the homes of thousands, is destroyed. The tower is rebuilt to work as a lighthouse until, at the time barely older than the United States, it is completely destroyed by fire in 1719.
Rebuilt with stone by 1750, the tower becomes a prison for the exiled; 1830, a quarantine through the cholera epidemic; 1857, a lighthouse again; 1964, a station for the Ministry of National Defense; 1999, the hideout for an unscrupulous Bond villain; and in 2012, a restaurant and cafe.
But, at least, I learned a few interesting things.
Ahem, moral time:
People often blind themselves so much that they dilute life and experiences. One should have expectations, wishes, and standards, true — but people often fail to appreciate the small things, blessings before them, because they are too busy looking for the grand gestures and for the show to upstage others : It’s what sours people to Valentines and what makes bitter hecklers envy and pollute the happiness of others.
So set on finding this perfect Valentine’s love story, I could have missed the beauty in the simpleness of the tower.
I enjoyed the trip, but I didn’t get the whole picture: I complained about better views and more important stairs out there while neglecting to notice that I was there right then – I was seeing those views, I was on that stair at that moment. And it was beautiful.
How one stays optimistic is by breathing in and being where you are.
The tower has been destroyed and remade and renovated and restored so many times, so it is of worth to at least a few persistent souls — that’s beautiful.
So, yes, I could have made this a rant on commercialism (2000 year old landmark turns out to be a restaurant and cafe), a sermon on the world’s growing irreverence for antiquity (Justin Bieber shout outs carved into antique remnant), or an ode to singleness (passive aggressive allusion to fact romantic destination once quarantine). But I chose to live the adventure of the Maiden’s Tower like I try to always: stumbling on the hearth, stepping back to catch the view, and finding something positive to write…
I got a good view for the day.
And I met a lovely Dutch couple.
And I followed a beautiful Turkish couple to surreptitiously photograph them for blog.
And I found the Forever Rock: During every reconstruction recorded, it has never been moved. That’s kind of romantic even if cholera is not.
And I ate cheesecake.
I had a lovely day. Happy (late) Valentines.
How to get there: If you’re on the European side, take a ferry over to Üsküdar: I recommend taking a ferry from one of the smaller stations that leave every 10 minutes or so – avoid the larger, slower, scheduled ferries. If you’re observant, you’ll see the Maiden’s Tower while crossing.
It’s a 15 minute walk to Salacak (Bosphorus on right) and you cannot miss the little ticket booth. Our 15TL ticket got us on the island via 2 minute boat ride. These boats leave for the island every 15 minutes and leave the island every 45 minutes to either Kabatas or Üsküdar. If you’re early (the first boat of the day leaves at 12PM) you’ll only have to share the ride with a pleasant couple from the Netherlands.
Food: Üsküdar has fantastic shops and büfes along the Bosphorus and they’re only a step away. Or, in Beşiktaş, cafes line the streets. Dinner at the Tower is only served by reservation and lunch is a bit pricey (10TL for a cup of Salep).
Go For: A romantic dinner or a pit stop to your sight seeing of the Asia side. Learn the legend if you’re in Istanbul, appreciate it, but it’s not essential to your Istanbul cultural experience.
Kids won’t have a great place to play — stairs are narrow, halls are a bit dark, civilized (hoity toity) restaurant is below, and it’s only a 2 minute run around the island — but they will enjoy the boat ride and all of the One Direction shout outs (Happy birthday (February 1st), “Harry”, apparently, whoever that is (irrelevant because Harry’s birthday is JULY 31ST, nitwits)) carved into the tower. It’s a great marker for history buffs and a great view for the romantically inclined or otherwise.