Istanbul has been the capital city of two great empires, so naturally it is the site of many historical masterpieces. One of these two great empires, the Roman Empire—which would later become the Byzantine Empire after the split of Rome into East and West—left behind many great monuments. In this series of articles, we will be taking a look at some of the Roman and Byzantine Empire structures Istanbul has to offer.


The Galata Tower

The Galata Tower is one of the oldest towers in the world, and it was originally built by the Byzantine Emperor Anastasius in 528 as a lighthouse. The tower, which was destroyed in the Fourth Crusade in 1204, was later rebuilt in 1348 by the Genoese using masonry stones, in addition to the Galata walls, and was known as the “Tower of Christ.”


It was used as an observation tower during the reign of Selim II. It functioned as a fire-spotting station until 1964 before it was closed for restoration. It reopened to the public in 1967. In the first half of the 17th century, during the reign of Murat IV, Hezarfen Ahmet Çelebi flew from the Galata Tower to Doğancılar (in Üsküdar) in 1638, wearing wings he had fashioned from wood, after observing the winds and practising flight in Okmeydanı. This flight attracted interest from Europe, and engravings illustrating this flight were made in England.



The Aqueduct of Valens

The Aqueduct of Valens, built by Emperor Valens, is the oldest aqueduct in Istanbul. The structure, which was connected to water sources outside the city during the reign of Theodosius I, became one of the most important components of the city’s water network, meeting the city’s water needs for more than 1500 years in the late Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman periods.


The Maiden's Tower

This famous tower is located 150–200 metres off Salacak in Üsküdar. Although there is no definite information about when the Maiden's Tower was built, some sources claim that it dates back to 341 BC.

Former names for the Maiden's Tower include Damalis and Leandros. Damalis was the name of the Athenian king Kharis’s wife. When Damalis died, she was buried on these beaches and the tower was named after her. In addition, the tower was also called Arcla in Byzantine times, which means "small castle."

Initially home to a tomb during the Greek period, this island was used as a customs station with an annex built during the Byzantine period. In the Ottoman period, it served many functions, from show platform to defence castle, from exile station to quarantine venue. It has never lost its primary function of guiding people with its lighthouse, which has been there for centuries and winks at passing ships at night. The Maiden's Tower was restored in 2000, converted into a restaurant, and became a tourist attraction. Access to the Maiden's Tower is by boat from Salacak and Ortaköy.



The Theodosius Obelisk

The Theodosius Obelisk, or simply the Obelisk (Dikilitaş), is an ancient Egyptian obelisk located on the south side of Sultanahmet Square, next to the Serpent Column. It was brought from Egypt by the Roman emperor Theodosius I in 394-395 and erected in its current location.


The Basilica Cistern

The Basilica Cistern is the largest indoor cistern in the city, located on the European side of Istanbul. It is accessed via a small building to the southwest of the Hagia Sophia building. The ceiling of the place, supported by a forest of columns, is built from brick, and cross-vaulted. The cistern was built by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I (527-565). Due to the many marble columns rising from the water, it is known locally as the Yerebatan (Sunken) Palace. The building is also called the Basilica Cistern because there used to be a basilica where the cistern is located. The cistern was also the subject of Dan Brown's novel Inferno.

The two Medusa Heads used as column bases in the northwest corner of the cistern are masterpieces of Roman sculpture art. It is not known from which structures the Medusa heads were taken. These Medusa head column bases are popular with visitors.