Istanbul’s Most Romantic Place: The Maiden’s Tower

At the intersection of the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn, where the East and the West mingles in the waters of Istanbul, you’ve got Maiden’s Tower. It can be crowned the Queen of the Bosphorus or the Pearl of the Bosphorus as well! It is an important place among the architectural wonders of Istanbul. So much so that it has become the symbol of the Bosphorus, of Istanbul and Üsküdar. It is a favorite of both Istanbullites and tourists alike. It’s the only remaining Byzantine structure or heritage (even if it’s been demolished and replaced many times) in the Bosphorus today and has many legends associated with it.

Also called the Tower of Leandros, as it was known in Byzantine times and by some European historians, it was one of the Constantinople’s classical sites. There are a few myths associated with this ancient islet and its small tower/watch house.

One well-known legends talks about the love story of Leandros and Hero. A Turkish one is about a King who locked up his daughter in the tower in order to protect her. Hence the name, Tower of Leandros and Maiden’s Tower, respectively. Then, there’s a relatively newer one, again, about love where the two ancient towers of Istanbul, one being the Maiden’s tower and the other, being the Galata Tower, fall in love!

The most well-known is the legend of Leandros, which also gave its name to the tower (Leander’s Tower). The story of Leondros and Hero, the lovers who defy the sea between them and ends in tragedy. The tower, often mistakenly named Leander’s Tower in reference to the legend of Hero and Leander. That story actually took place in the Dardanelles strait, also known as the Hellespont in antiquity.

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Located on a small islet quite near the coast of Üsküdar, the tower actually is quite small. It has a small restaurant on the first floor and a cafe on the top floor. It was even featured in films!

For Turkish people, it’s simply known as Kız Kulesi and was depicted on the reverse of the Turkish 10 Lira banknotes during the years 1966–1981.

Today, it’s a popular place to photograph the tower is on the Asian side. What you’ll get is the the beautiful tower with Old Istanbul in the background.  You’ll see this in contrast to the towering minarets and skyscrapers located in Old Istanbul and the European side of the city.

In early 1999, Hollywood came knocking and the tower was used for filming locations for the James Bond movie starring Pierce Brosnan,The World Is Not Enough. For instance, it was used for the villain Renard’s lair in the film. 

Legends & Myths

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Leandros: The first legend about the Maiden’s Tower was recorded by Roman poet Ovid. Legend has it that Hero, who was a priestess in the Temple of Aphrodite in Sestos on the west side of the Dardanelles, falls in love with Leandros, who lives in Abydos. Leandros swims every night to Sestos to see Hero. One day, when a storm breaks out, the light of the light in the tower goes out and he loses his way and dies by drowning. Seeing his lifeless body on the shore the next day, Hero commits suicide by throwing herself into the water.

This legend, which normally takes place in Çanakkale in the Dardanelles, was adapted by European travelers in the 18th century to incorporate the Maiden’s Tower in the Bosphorus. It gained fame in accordance with the “antique fashion” of the period, and the tower began to be called “Tour de Leandre” or “Leandre Tower” (as seen in many paintings of the era).

The King’s Daughter: There’s a myth about why t is the story of the king and his daughter. The king, who was warned by a fortune teller that his daughter would die due to a snake bite, had the Maiden’s Tower built on the rocks off Salacak (in Üsküdar) in order to protect his daughter and placed her daughter in this tower. The king sends various foods to his daughter in a basket at certain times. One day, there’s a asp hidden in the fruit basket and it poisons the king’s daughter, causing her to die.

Battal Gazi: The other legend is of a Turk, Battal Gazi, a general who was stationed across the city. A Byzantine landlord was alarmed and hid his treasures and his daughter in this tower. However, Battal Gazi captures the tower and takes both the treasures and the princess. He continues on his way by passing Üsküdar on his horse. It is rumored that the origin of the Turkish expression “Atı alan Üsküdar’ı”  meaning “The one who took the horse has passed Üsküdar” is this particular event.

Galata Tower & the Maiden’s Tower: The Maiden’s Tower is alone in the Bosphorus, naive yet charming, as elegant as a pearl in the heart of Istanbul. Galata Tower, on the other hand, is an imposing structure that watches Istanbul from the top.
While the Maiden’s Tower floats alone in the Bosphorus, Galata Tower appears before it, with its majestic and enchanting stance. The two towers fall in love with each other in the presence of Istanbul, but cannot meet because the Bosphorus is an obstacle. Galata Tower writes letters and poems to the Maiden’s Tower, which is melting day by day in the face of impossible love.

One day, Ahmet Çelebi, an Ottoman scientist, climbs to the top of the Galata Tower. His aim is to fly to Üsküdar from there. Çelebi decides to fly with the letters the Galata Tower had accumulated for centuries. However, while approaching the Salacak beach, it disperses with the effect of the wind, but the waves carry the letters to the Maiden’s Tower. At that time, the Maiden’s Tower realizes how much the Galata Tower loves it. They become even more in love when they realize that their love is mutual. Although it is impossible for them to meet, they live and love by looking at each other for centuries. This legendary love, handed down from generation to generation, brought an enchanting atmosphere to the beauty of Istanbul!


Maiden’s Tower Restaurant, image sourced from Pixabay

It was the ancient Greeks who first settled in what is now the sprawling cosmopolitan city of Istanbul. One area they built a settlement is the rocks of Chrysopolis, also known as Scutari in the Ottoman period, which is today’s Üsküdar. The small islet around 180m from the coast was used as a station for ships passing through the Bosphorus waterways. Üsküdar was the place where caravans and pilgrims came and departed to Syria, Persia and the East in general. Today, there still stands a busy bus station and ferry terminal there called Harem. 

Byzantine/Greek Period

There is no definite information about the construction date of the Maiden’s Tower, but it is said to date back to 341 BC, according to some sources. And there is a connection to the Peloponnesian War and a decisive battle fought in Cyzicus (present day Erdek) in ancient Mysia. 

An Athenian fleet under general Alcibiades destroyed the Peloponnesian League’s Spartan fleet, under Mindarus and gained control over the Hellespont (present day Dardanelles) as a result of this victory. This particular general Alcibiades built a station on the small Bosphorus inlet that is today the Maiden’s Tower. It was used to check, collect taxes and process ships coming in from the Black Sea.

Christophoro de Bondelmontibus Joannes Baptistӕ Coignard, 1422. Image sourced from Kiz Kulesi / Turkish Ministry of Culture

On the other hand, Damalis and Leandros are the old names of the Maiden’s Tower. But the name Damalis was given as the name of the wife of Kharis, who was King of Athens at the time. When Damalis died, he was buried off the beaches of Chrysopolis and that’s why the tower was given this name. In addition, the tower was also called Arcla, which means small castle during the Byzantine Empire.

A wooden tower with a stone wall by Byzantine Emperor Alexius Comnenus was built on the islet in the year 1110. An iron chain crossed the Bosphorus to join another tower near Seraglio Point on the European coast. This was near the Mangana Palace on the peninsula (an old Byzantine palace that’s no longer in existence as it was demolished and its remain used elsewhere in ancient Byzantium) and joined the Asian side via defense walls.

In the 15th century, it was named as Arcona Tower. Later in the 17th century, it was known as the Tour de Leandre as referenced in a French painting by Joseph Grelot (1680) Later on, it has other names, such as Kule-i Duhter and of course, by its present name as well.

The Ottoman Period

In 1453, the year Constantinople witnessed the Ottoman siege and lost the capital, the small tower held a Byzantine garrison under Venetian commander Gabriele Trevisano. Before that year, Constantinople was largely in ruins, poor and uninhabited.

The Venetian colony offered support to Constantine and Venetian ships were armed as war ships to defend the city. Gabriele Trevisano was the vice-captain of the Gulf around Cosntantinople and was ordered by the Venetian Senate to help in the defense of the city with his two galleys. He was also ordered to help ships navigate the waters from the Black Sea. 

Giovanni Andrea Vavassore, 16th century. Image sourced from Kiz Kulesi / Turkish Ministry of Culture

After the conquest, the Ottoman Sultan Fatih Mehmed used it as a watchtower. During the Ottoman period, it served many purposes: a demonstration platform, exile station, defense castle and for quarantine from the plague. However, it has never lost its main duty of guiding the ships and the importance of this duty.

Repairs & Restorations

The Maiden’s Tower has undergone extensive repairs many times throughout its long history and has been repaired frequently. Due to its location, weather conditions and sea wear out the tower and it needs constant maintenance. In addition, due to its naive structure, it is listed among the damaged structures in the archive records of the many earthquakes that Istanbul experiences. The repairs are closely related to the Istanbul earthquakes mostly.

The ancient tower was destroyed during the earthquake (dubbed “the small apocalypse“) of 1509 and again in 1692.  It was restored by Ottoman Sultan Yavuz Sultan Selim. However, the wooden part burned in 1721 and 1729 due to a fire brought on by the oil burning lights on the tower. Since then it has been used as a lighthouse, and the surrounding walls were repaired. After the conquest of Istanbul, the existing tower on the island was demolished and a wooden tower was built in its place.

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The lighthouse was built in 1721. In 1729, the effect of the wind effect of the oil lamp in torch. It was burned in 1725 and by Nevşehirli Damat İbrahim Pasha, the Chief Architect of the City, it underwent repairs. After this repair, the tower had a lead dome and the lantern section. A glassed kiosk and a lead-covered dome were added. In 1731, the tower’s lantern and cannon battlements and other places were rebuilt.

In the discovery prepared by Hassa Chief Architect Mehmet Tahir Ağa, the site outside the tower was repaired with limestone floors and one on the seven open cannons in the courtyard. With the construction of a porch, the transfer of tiles and
the renewal of the slate stone flooring was done.

In 1763, the tower was erected using stone instead of wood. The year 1766 witnessed the Great Istanbul Earthquake and it caused destruction of the Maiden’s Tower. The Chief Architect, Mehmed Tahir Ağa, did additional repairs.

The last major repair of the Maiden’s Tower in the Ottoman period was during built the reign of Mahmud II. After the renovations, in 1832-33, which gave the tower its current shape, the famous calligrapher Rakım’s calligraphy made a monogram of the sultan on the marble above the door of the Maiden’s Tower.

The current existing structure was commissioned by Sultan Mahmut II. An inscription bearing the signature of Sultan Mahmud II can be seen on the tower gate. In 1857, a lantern was added to the tower. An automatic light system was introduced in the tower’s lantern.

Leander’s Tower on the Bosphorus, 1876. Painting by Sanford R. Gifford. Image sourced from Google Books, Hudson River School Visions: The Landscapes of Sanford R. Gifford

From 1829, the tower was used as a quarantine station, and in 1832 was restored again by Sultan Mahmud II. In 1830, it was also used as a Lighthouse for a while after the establishment of the Republic. 

 Between 1920 and 1932, an automatic light system has been introduced in the tower’s lantern. Simple repairs in the Maiden’s Tower and the overhead line under the sea and underground cables were renewed.

During WWII, the Maiden’s Tower was renovated again due to rotting
wooden parts. Some parts were demolished and reinforced with concrete. The city’s harbour authority took over and did some repairs in 1932 and 1945. In 1943,
big rocks were placed around the tower to protect it from the surrounding sea.
Warehouses and gas tanks on the quay around the rock on which the tower sits
were removed. The exterior walls of the building were preserved and the interior was renewed with reinforced concrete.

Restorations saw steel supports as additions, an especially important addition after the deadly August 1999 Izmit earthquake. The tower was more recently restored by a private company in 2000. 

A Legendary Place of Myths and many Roles

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The Maiden’s Tower, which was used for many purposes: tax collection from commercial ships, defense, lighthouse, quarantine hospital and radio station during the Cholera epidemic. As aforementioned, the Maiden’s Tower has been used as a defense castle, exile station, prison, quarantine room, radio station, tax point and lighthouse throughout its long history.

Today, there are regular ferries to the tower and it’s one of the most romantic places in the city. The interior of the tower today has been transformed into a popular café and restaurant. Private boats make trips to the tower several times a day, where you can take a break in a restaurant in the first floor and a café at the top of the tower. Expect to spend some good amount of money here on your romantic date!