A handful of men stand on the shore of the calm strait, each holding a fishing rod and a bucket to contain the catch. Some look pensive, others uneasy. Curious with the water I come closer to see what lies beneath. Surprisingly it reveals small jellyfish, afloat near the shore and rather moderate in number to be considered an infestation. But that is not why I had come to this tranquil neighborhood. To my right, stands a magnificent fortress built out of an ambition of a man to bring his empire to be one of the greatest in history.
The Bosphorus, a narrow strait separating Asia from Europe has drawn conquerors to establish fortresses and watchtowers along its shores. The lucrative trade between regions around the Black Sea and their counterparts in the Mediterranean was one of the main reasons for rulers from foreign lands to take control of it and gain tremendous benefit – but also risk being threatened by other powers. The Greeks, Genoese, and Romans were some who managed to maintain a strong presence around the 31 km-long strait for centuries.
Constantinople, built at the southern end of the Bosphorus held an important role not only as a major trading port but also the political and religious center of the Eastern Roman Empire. The Ottoman Empire which started to gain prominence in the 14th century built its stronghold right across the strait, in the Anatolian plateau – also known as Asia Minor. In the mid-15th century, the rising power built a fortress on the European side of the narrowest point of the Bosphorus where Asia and Europe is less than 700 m apart.
Rumelihisarı – Fortress on the Land of the Romans – was constructed in a record speed of only four years, in preparation of the second siege of Constantinople after an unsuccessful campaign by the Ottomans three decades earlier. By controlling both sides of the narrowest point of the strait, the Ottomans managed to prevent the Genoese colonies in the Black Sea from helping the ailing Byzantine Empire during the second siege.
After two months of constant pounding by heavy artillery, the previously impregnable walls of Constantinople were breached and the city fell into the Ottomans on May 29, 1453. The city was transformed forever, along with further expansions of the newly rising power into Europe.
More than five centuries later, I walk into the fortress where near the entrance a cannon is curiously laid on the ground between two large balls – something that normally can only be found in erotic temples. Inside the fortress, a large amphitheater lies at the center of the compound, overlooked by the three main towers –The Tower of Sarıca Pasha, the Tower of Zağanos Pasha, and the Tower of Halil Pasha – named after the three viziers of Fatih Sultan Mehmet, or Mehmet II, the sultan behind the successful campaign to conquer the city.
Today Rumelihisarı is a museum about 10 km north of the city center. Not far from it a second bridge connecting both sides of Istanbul was built, aptly named Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge. The Bosphorus is now a peaceful body of water, a marked difference from its tumultuous past. No more conquest, no more bloodshed. The world’s narrowest strait for international navigation is now used solely for economic and tourism purposes. But history will forever lurk from within the walls of the ancient fortresses along the strait.