The Golden Horn, the beginning of Byzantium
Few names are as suggestive as the Golden Horn. This is the estuary that separates old Istanbul from new Istanbul and flows into the Bosphorus Strait. It was the northern boundary of ancient Byzantium, which was walled inside the small horn-shaped peninsula that forms its outline.
The Fatih district, which is almost the exact layout of ancient Byzantine Constantinople, encompasses the peninsula. Here you’ll find government buildings, museums, university campuses, and a variety of cultural venues. It’s also home to the neighbourhoods of Fener and Balat, declared World Heritage Sites by UNESCO due to their traditions of religious diversity and coexistence. In addition, the various bridges that cross the waters of the Golden Horn have become some of the best viewpoints in the city.
The origin of this intriguing name, however, remains a mystery. Haliç, the Turkish name for the Golden Horn, simply means estuary. But why its first Greek settlers already knew it as the Golden Horn is far from clear. All sorts of reasons have been put forward. The abundance of fish, the colour of the waters lit up in the dawn, the riches that flowed here from the East on the Silk Road and through trade with Europe, and many others. None of these explanations have satisfied scholars and academics, however.
The Golden Horn, a turbulent history
The Golden Horn, that has been inhabited since at least the 7th millennium BC, only began to evolve into a large urban centre when it was colonised by the Greek civilisation. From then until the Ottoman conquest, Greek was the official language of the city.
Legend has it that it was the Greek King Byzas of Megara who, after being foretold at Delphi that he would create a great city “in the land opposite the city of the blind”, decided to found the colony of Byzantium on the Golden Horn. After inspecting the area, he came to the conclusion that the blind men referred to by the oracle could only be the inhabitants of Chalcedon, who had settled on the Asian shore of the Bosphorus. Byzas, seeing the strategic location of the estuary, declared that only someone who had lost his sight could have been unaware of its value as a harbour and defensive point. The Greeks would later conquer the Chalcedonians.
With the arrival of the Byzantines, one of the most fascinating stories of the Golden Horn would begin; the story of the gigantic chain that for almost a thousand years closed its waters off to enemy fleets from the Bosphorus. It stretched from the Genoese city of Galata on the other side to Constantinople itself. Only three times in history was it surpassed, the last time by Mehmet II, who took the entire population by surprise when they saw his fleet calmly sailing into the estuary. Mehmet had arranged to have all his ships move during the night, through hills and difficult terrain. After a great struggle, the city finally fell into the hands of this ambitious and tenacious ruler.
After the Ottoman victory in 1453, some of the Jews of Constantinople decided to stay with the new lords of the city. Later, Emperor Bayezid II invited the Sephardic Jews exiled by the Catholic Monarchs in Spain to settle in the Balat quarter. Bayezid II would also later commission Leonardo da Vinci himself to design a bridge across the Golden Horn. At the time, the single-arch structure was so revolutionary that it couldn’t be built, but in 2001 a Norwegian artist was commissioned to build a replica. This proved not only that the bridge was stable, but also that it was designed to withstand the effects of wind and other weather conditions.
Fortunately, the Golden Horn has been able to enhance this historical legacy with large green spaces and parks where people fish or enjoy the riverbanks. In the 1980s, the area was a huge slum that acted as the city’s sewer. Fortunately, nothing remains of that less-than-splendid past, and every year some ten million foreigners flock to its bridges and banks to enjoy one of Istanbul’s best panoramic views.
What to see in the Golden Horn
The main bridges
The old Galata Bridge, built in 1836, connected Karaköy and Eminönü, and was rebuilt in 1845, 1912, and then dismantled in 1993. Today its space is a recreational area with cafés, parks, and even an airfield. The new Galata bridge (internal link), which also links Karaköy and Eminönü, is now the most famous bridge in the city, offering one of the best views of the historic centre. The remaining bridges are the Haliç Bridge, dating from 1974 that connects Sütlüce and Defterdar; the Atatürk Bridge, or Unkapani, from 1940, that connects Kasımpaşa and Unkapani; and the Haliç Metro, a railway-style bridge that since 2014 has also been a pedestrian bridge.
The Fener Quarter
Within the Fatih district is this neighbourhood where many Greeks decided to settle after the Fall of Constantinople in 1453. Many of them prospered and even had good relations with the sultan, who appointed them to important positions in his administration. Many buildings constructed during those years have survived in Fener, a neighbourhood of wooden houses and a host of historic sites. Byzantine churches, synagogues, mosques, and institutions such as the Orthodox Patriarchate have survived. Its most important buildings are the Pink Mosque, a Byzantine church converted into a mosque, the Bulgarian St. Stephen Church, the Red School, the Church of St. Mary of the Mongols, and the fanciful Phanar Greek Orthodox College.
The Balat Quarter
This was the old Jewish quarter in Ottoman Istanbul. Inside you can find mosques as well as synagogues and Christian churches. Like Fener, this traditional coexistence between the different religions in the city earned it recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This welcoming neighbourhood stands out because of its cobbled streets and historic buildings, such as the Ferruh Kethuda Mosque, the 15th-century Ahrida Synagogue, and the Jewish Hospital.
Cruises on the Bosphorus
One of the most recommended attractions of the Golden Horn are the ferries that offer some of the best views of the city. We can see many important buildings along the way, such as the Rumeli Hisar Fortress, the Dolmabahçe Palace, the iron church of the Orthodox Patriarchate, the Balat neighbourhood and the Tomb of Eyüp, a companion of Mohammed himself.
Many cruises and ferries depart from the shore. At Kabataş, on the European shore, there’s a pier from which you can cross to the Asian shore in about 20 minutes for a very low price. There are also boats from here that take you to different parts of the estuary, and some cruises even enter the Bosphorus (internal link). If you choose the latter destination, one of the most famous is the one that runs along the right bank of the Bosphorus Strait to the Rumeli Fortress, an ancient enclave that Mehmet II the Conqueror himself erected during the conquest of Constantinople. The return journey is on the opposite bank, and the trip takes about three hours in total. There are three scheduled departures per day: one at 10.35 a.m., the next leaves at midday and the last one at 1.35 p.m. These cruises can be taken from the Eminörnü terminal, which has bus and light rail stops of the same name.