Constantinople – The Walls

I had formed a resolution to make a grand expedition among those remote districts of Constantinople which are but rarely visited by travelers; their curiosity seldom extending farther than the Bezestin, the Atmeidan, Sultan-Bajazet, the Old Seraglio, and the environs of Saint-Sophia; around which localities are concentrated the life and movement of the Moslem city. I started, accordingly, at an early hour, accompanied by a young Frenchman, who had been a long time resident in Turkey. We descended rapidly the slope of Galata ; crossed the Golden Horn, by the bridge of boats, on paying four pares to the toll-keeper; and leaving Yeni-Djami at one side, we plunged boldly into a labyrinth of narrow streets and lanes of the purest Turkish character.

As we advanced, the scene became more lonely, the dogs, growing more savage at each stage of our progress, glared sullenly at us, and followed growling at our heels. The wooden houses, discolored and dilapidated, with their crumbling lattices and floors out of line, presented much the appearance of decayed hen-coops. A fountain, in ruins, allowed its water to escape through various unregarded crevices, into a green and slimy basin. A dismantled funeral chapel, over-run with briars, nettles, and daffodils, displayed, through its cobweb-covered gratings, some dingy sepulchral columns, leaning to right and left and offering to view only a few illegible inscriptions. A marabout reared its coarsely whitewashed dome, flanked with a minaret which resembled a tall candle surmounted by its extinguisher; above the long line of walls projected the sable cones of cypresses, and tufts of sycamore, or plane trees, hung over into the streets.

I do not suppose that there is in the world a ride more austerely melancholy than upon this road, which extends for nearly a league, between a cemetery and a mass of ruins. The ramparts, composed of two lines of wall flanked with square towers, have at their base a large moat, at present cultivated throughout, which is again surrounded by a stone parapet; forming, in fact, three lines of fortification. These are the walls of Constantine; at least such as have been left of them, after time, sieges, and earthquakes have done their worst upon them. In their masses of brick and stone, are still visible breaches made by catapults, and battering-rams, or by that gigantic culverin, that mastodon of artillery, which was served by seven hundred cannoniers, and threw balls of marble of nearly half a ton in weight.

Here and there, a gigantic fissure has cleft a tower from top to bottom; farther on, a mass of wall has fallen into the moat; but where masonry was wanting, the elements have supplicd earth and seed; a shrub has supplied the place of a missing battlement, and grown into a tree; the thou-sand tendrils of parasitical plants sustain the stone which would otherwise have fallen; the roots of trees, after acting as wedges to intro-duce themselves between the joints of the stones, become chains to confine them; and the line of wall is still (to the eye) continued without interruption; raising against the clear sky its battered profile and displaying its curtains and bastions, draped with ivy, and gilded by time, with tints by turns mellow and severe. At intervals were visible the ancient gates, of Byzantine architecture, overlaid with Turkish masonry, but still leaving enough of the original to be recognized.

It was difficult to realize that a living city lay behind the defunct ramparts which hid Constantinople from our view. It had been easier to believe one’s self near some of those cities of the Arabian legends, all the inhabitants of which had been, by some magical process, turned into stone. Only a few minarets, rearing their heads above the immense circuit of ruins, testified that there was life within, and that the Capital of Islam still existed.

These embrowned walls, encumbered by the vegetation peculiar to ruins, which seemed to expand itself lazily in the solitude, and over which crept fearlessly an occasional lizard, witnessed, four hundred years ago, thronging around their base, the hordes of Asia, urged on by the terrible Mohammed II. The bodies of Janizaries and of savages rolled, covered with wounds, in this moat, where now peaceful vegetation displays itself; streams of blood poured down, where now droop only the tendrils of ivy or of sassafras.

One of the most fearful of human struggles the conflict of race against race, of religion against religion—occurred on this spot, now deserted, and where now reigns the silence of decay and death. As is always the ease, the young and vigorous barbarism overpowered the old and decrepit civilization; and while the Greek priest still continued tranquilly to fry his fish, unable to believe in the possibility that Constantinople could be taken, the triumphant Mohammed II. spurred his steed into the sacred precincts of Saint-Sophia, and struck his ensanguined hand upon the marble wall of the sanctuary, in token of conquest.