In excavations around Istanbul, the first traces of human culture are found in Yarımburgaz Cave near Küçükçekmece Lake. These traces show us human settlement dating back 300,000 years and belong to Neolithic and Chalcolithic periods. During different periods beginning from the last 750 years onward, the cave was used as both shelter and temple—first as a shelter by the people shifting to agriculture. In addition to this cave, others discovered around Istanbul with human settlement traces date back to 100,000 years, 50,000 years and 7,500 years.
The Other Side of the Land of the Blind
A group from Megara—a city from Middle Greece—looking for a place to settle, passed through the Bosphorus, and between the years of 685-680 BC established Kadıköy (old name Kalkedon) [Asian side of Istanbul]. After that, another group from Megara with their leader Byzas (Bizas) formed the foundations of Istanbul in 660-657 BC at Sarayburnu [European side of Istanbul]. Up to the second century, this ancient city—Byzantion (Bizantion)—held the name of its founder, Byzas.
At this point we must digress to mention the famous legend from Greek mythology about how the city of Istanbul first blossomed. Megarians consulted the oracle of Delphi before their journey to learn the location of their new city. The oracle answered, “It is on the opposite side of the Land of the Blind.” Megarians reached the hill at Sarayburnu, where Topkapi Palace stands today, and they adored the place. On the other side, stood the city of Kalkedon and they regarded Kalkedonians as blind for establishing their city on the opposite side. They decided that “the Land of the Blind” the oracle mentioned was “Kalkedon,” so they established their city at Sarayburnu. They named the city Byzas after their king.
After six years of reconstruction during AD 324-330, the city had been expanded four times, and finally on 11 May 330, became the capital of Great Rome. Istanbul became the capital of an empire for the first time under the Great Roman Emperor Constantinus I (Constantine 1). Celebrations lasted forty days. During those times Istanbul was called New Rome (Nova Roma); thereafter, the city was named Constantinople.
Talismans of Istanbul
According to Evliya Çelebi, during the reign of Byzantium Emperors Yanko, Vezondan and Konstantinus, 27 talismanic monuments were placed all around Istanbul to protect the city from all sorts of trouble. Built by famous engineers and architects with highly artistic qualities and brought from all over the world, these monuments were placed to protect the citizens from natural disasters. The most famous 15 talismanic monuments are as follows:
The first talisman, namely, The Column of Arkadius, consisted of a tall column placed in “Avratpazarı” (Cerrahpaşa), and formed by thousands of pieces of white marble with stairs inside. The column of Arcadius was a Roman triumphal column begun in AD 401 in the forum of Arcadius in Constantinople to commemorate Arcadius’s triumph in AD 400 over the Goths under Gainas. It was destroyed in either the sixteenth or the eighteenth century when, weakened by earthquakes, it threatened to topple and had to be taken down—only its massive masonry base of red granite now survives, known as the Avret Tash in Turkish. On top of the column stood a statue with the face of a fairy. According to the rumors, this fairy statue shrieked once a year causing all the birds on earth to gather around. Thousands of birds fell to the ground and the public fed on them.
The second talisman was located at Tavukpazarı (Çemberlitaş). The Column of Constantine (or Burnt Column) is a Roman monumental column constructed in AD 330 on the orders of Roman Emperor Constantine the Great. It commemorates the declaration of Byzantium as the new capital city of the Roman Empire. The column is located on Yeniçeriler Caddesi in central Istanbul, along the old Divan Yolu (the “Road to the Imperial Council”) between Sultanahmet and Beyazıt Square, known as Forum Tauri in the Roman period. The red solid marble column was believed to protect the dynasty from harm, illness and mischief. Constantine placed this high pillar of a talisman in the shape of a flapping starling, and once a year, it was said to have flapped its wings. With this flapping, supposedly, all birds would bring three olives with their beaks and claws.
The third talisman was placed at Saraçhane on the grave of the Great Pozantin’s daughter. This talisman is also known as The Column of Marcian (Turkish: Kıztaşı, meaning “Column of the Girl”). It is a Roman honorific column erected in Constantinople in AD 455 dedicated to the Emperor Marcian. It is made of red-grey Egyptian granite in two pieces. The basis is quadrilateral, formed by four slabs in white marble, decorated with a Chi-Rho monogram inside medallions on three faces, and two genii (who account for the Turkish name of the column) holding a globe. The column is topped by a Corinthian capital (decorated with aquilas) probably a basis for a statue of Marcian in imitation of the Column of Trajan and the Column of Marcus Aurelius in Rome, which definitely were topped by statues of the emperor they commemorated. This talisman was believed to protect the emperor’s daughter from snakes, centipedes and ants.
When Byzantium, renamed Constantinople, became the capital of the Roman Empire, it soon had more inhabitants than it could supply with the water of its wells and the little river west of it. So, large cisterns were built. One of these, built by the Emperor Anastasius I (AD 491-518) on the Seventh Hill, was the Cistern of Saint Mocius, named after a saint who was venerated in a nearby church. It is the youngest of the great cisterns. In Turkish, it is called Altı Mermer (“the seven marbles”). The fourth through ninth talismans all stand at Altımermer in the Kocamustafapaşa neighborhood. Ancient scholars crafted all six marble columns on this monument. One talisman embellished each of the marble columns.
The fourth talisman, one of the six marble columns, depicts a buzzing fly. Due to this buzzing fly, it was believed to prevent flies from entering Istanbul.
One of the six columns portrayed the fifth talisman as a stork painting. This stork shrieked twice a year. On the first shriek, storks appeared everywhere, and on the second, all the storks left Istanbul.
The sixth talisman revealed a rooster painting. This rooster crowed every 24 hours and led all the other roosters.
Due to the seventh talisman of a wolf painting, Istanbul sheep strolled around without a shepherd, yet returned each evening to their stalls well fed and in full count.
Now, the eighth talisman of a bronze statue of a young man and his mate hugging held special meaning for married couples. When a man and wife had a dispute and if one of them came and hugged the statue, they immediately made peace.
Unlike the eighth talisman, the ninth, designed by Scholar Calinus on white marble, showed a painting of an old man and woman. If a man and a woman could not get along and one of them hugged the statue, they immediately divorced.
All of the columns in the Cistern of Saint Mocius were destroyed in an earthquake during the Byzantine Period.
The tenth talisman displayed a four-cornered pillar beneath the Sultan Beyazid Turkish Bath. This protected the city from the plague. It is said that while this pillar stood still, the plague would never enter the city. But Sultan Beyazid demolished this pillar during construction of the bath. And after that the son of Sultan Bayezid died of the plague and an epidemic swept through the city.
A bronze demon statue in The Palace of the Porphyrogenitus (known in Turkish as Tekfur Sarayı) claims the eleventh talisman. This statue blazed once a year. If someone could catch a spark from its blaze, then that person would be very healthy and stay young. It was believed that if someone could keep the spark in their kitchen, the fire would not go out until the person died.
The twelfth talisman sits in a cave at Zeyrek next to the Church of the Pantocrator. Every year during the coldest nights of winter, many witches called “koncoloz” crept out of this cave to make a tour around the city in their carriages.
The four columns of the St. (Hagia) Sophia monument introduce the thirteenth talisman. Each column had its own talisman and depicted with paintings of Azrael, Gabriel, Raphael and Mikhael. Each flapping of the wings and sound from each angel heralded an event: Gabriel revealed abundance in the East; Raphael, famine in the West; Mikhael, a hero from the North would emerge, and Azrael, the plague would sweep the entire world.
The fourteenth talisman was a monument at the Hippodrome of Constantinople, namely, Atmeydanı in Ottoman Period and Sultanahmet today, called Walled Obelisk (Milyonbar). This column, composed of 300,000 stones with a very powerful magnet at the top, would protect Istanbul from earthquakes. Evliya Çelebi mentions the following about the monument:
This is a very high column at Atmeydanı with the name Milyonpar; its height nearly 150 yards. During the reign of Constantine, sultans attached to him would send him precious stones according to the number of castles and cities they controlled. Those were piled at the center of Atmeydanı like a mountain and it was estimated that three times 100,000 pieces of stones were accumulated. That is how they know Constantine was a king reigning over 300,000 castles and cities. The head of the architects was also buried under it and his name was Uryarin. He was the son of the Agnostic, the architect of St. (Hagia) Sophia.
The fifteenth talisman was The Serpent Column (Turkish, Yılanlı Sütun)—also known as the Serpentine Column, Delphi Tripod or Plataean Tripod. It is an ancient bronze column at the Hippodrome of Constantinople and part of an ancient Greek sacrificial tripod, originally in Delphi and relocated to Constantinople by Constantine I the Great in AD 324. It was built to commemorate the Greeks who fought and defeated the Persian Empire at the Battle of Plataea (479 BC). The serpent heads of the 8-meter high column remained intact until the end of the seventeenth century, where one is on display at the Istanbul Archaeology Museums. One of the heads was destroyed with the sword of a Janissary. This act harmed the talisman. There were no scorpions in Istanbul before this incident occurred.
All these talismans protected Istanbul during these times, but they also live through the present day with their legends.
We cannot pave the road for the future by destroying the historical traces of the past. As human beings our main duty should be to claim our historical treasures and look for ways to preserve their original condition for the future. Why? Societies that cannot claim their past cannot breed hope for the future…