In the 12th century, the Byzantines built a defense tower on the island. It was known as Constantinople prior to 1453 when the Ottoman Emperor Mohammed the Conqueror took the City and renamed it Istanbul. During the Ottoman Empire era the tower was used for performances by Janissary (military) bands. The tower was also used as a prison and as a cholera quarantine hospital. During the 1950’s the Turkish military took it over and used it as a radar station and cyanide warehouse.
Like many of the buildings in Istanbul, the Maiden’s Tower succumbed to natural and man-made disasters including an earthquake in 1509 and a fire in 1716. The fire completely destroyed the Tower and it was rebuilt in 1725.
Turkish history is full of mysterious stories and legends. As such, many legends have evolved about the Maiden’s Tower over time. One of these popular legends is the story of the Aphrodite nun Hero (Hera), who was forbidden to love and was kept in the island’s tower to protect her from men. One day, on her visit to the temple, she met a man named Leandros, and fell in love with him. According to this legend, Leandros swam to the island every night, fighting treacherous currents and using the light from the lighthouse as his guide to meet his lover Hero. One stormy and fateful night his luck finally ran out. Someone had found out about the secret visits and blew out the lighthouse light. Leandros, who was already halfway across the water when the light went out, lost his way and drowned.
Not knowing her lover’s fate, Hero waited all night in vain. In the morning, Leandros’ dead body was brought to the little island by a fisherman who had knowledge of Hero’s affair with him. Seeing her lover Leandros’ dead body, Hero jumped off the tower and took her own life. As a young man, less than twenty years of age this spectacular love story ending in death did not particularly move or impress me as it might now, in the sixth decade of my life. Maybe that is why I always found the other legend of the Tower more appealing at the time and to this day associate it more with the Maiden’s Tower.
According to the other legend, there was a Byzantium Emperor whose wife bore him a most beautiful baby princess. She was so beautiful that people came from all over the Empire just to get a glimpse of this little baby girl. As was the tradition of the day, the Emperor brought in a soothsayer (a fortune teller) who promptly told the Emperor that his beautiful daughter would die when she turned 18 as a result of a snake bite. The Emperor, hearing this terrible destiny for his beautiful princess immediately dispatches her to the tower assuming that a little island in the middle of the water would be safe from any snakes. Legend has it that on her eighteenth birthday, the beautiful princess was indeed bitten by a poisonous snake which traveled to the island in a crate of fresh figs sent by the Emperor as a birthday gift to his daughter. The lovely princess dies on her eighteenth birthday as predicted by the soothsayer. Now we know why both legends fit the Tower being called Leander’s Tower or Maiden’s Tower.
All legends aside and to my dismay, in 2000, the Tower was restored by a private company and opened to the public for the first time. Private ferries leaving from shore now take passengers to the island’s cafeteria and restaurant, where they enjoy their meal and a spectacular panoramic view of Istanbul. As for me, I think I prefer to remember the tower as it was; a mysterious and romantic building on a sliver of rock in the middle of the Bosphorus straits, half way between Asia and Europe; home of two legends, Leander the Greek and his lover Aphrodite nun Hero, and the Emperor’s beautiful daughter who was bitten by a snake and died on her sixteenth birthday as predicted by a soothsayer.
Currently chairman of Marco Island’s Code Enforcement Board, Tarik Ayasun has given many years of community service to various organizations.