Rumelihisari Fortress in Istanbul is arguably the best castle in Europe not constructed by Europeans. Established by the Ottomans in the mid-15th century, it was constructed in a mere two years not for defensive purposes, but rather as an advance base to create a stranglehold on Constantinople. It is most famous for the three gargantuan round towers which enabled the Ottomans to control both the harbor and the landward approaches to the city with a daunting battery of medieval cannons. Rumelihisari is now one the most popular tourist site in Istanbul outside of the old city walls, and is home to a museum and concert venue.
Throughout the 14th and 15th centuries, the long slow decline of the ancient Byzantine Empire was reaching its apex. The heir to the great Roman Empire, the Byzantines had once ruled the Eastern Mediterranean. But by the 1450s, it had been reduced to a small territory around the capital of Constantinople, which was still the largest and most powerful city in Europe. The Ottomans had already failed on numerous occasions to take Constantinople. However, by the mid-15th century, the city’s luck had run out.
When the Ottoman horde arrived in 1451, they began to meticulously plan for the final showdown. One of the key elements of the battle plan was to neutralize the Byzantine navy, which had thwarted an Ottoman siege a half-century earlier. A Turkish force occupied a strategic site overlooking the Bosphorus and began construction of a powerful fortress whose guns could keep the Byzantine fleet at bay.
Although the Byzantine rulers realized what was going on, there was little they could do to stop the Ottomans by force. Diplomacy was also of no avail. Using thousands of workers, the Ottomans constructed an immense fortress, replete with batteries of cannon, in the record time of less than five months. The guns of the Rumelihisari Fortress completely dominated the straits, and the Byzantine navy was completely helpless to relieve the subsequent siege of the city.
Without access to the sea, Constantinople was helpless. It fell in 1453, the last surviving remnant of the two-thousand year old Roman Empire. The Rumelihisari Fortress remained one of the key defensive points of the city until the 19th century. It was also used as a prison for POWs and as a customs checkpoint. In the 1950s, after a long period of abandonment, the fortress was restored and reopened as a museum.
The Rumelihisari Fortress is a large and imposing affair standing on a low-sloped hill overlooking the Bosphorus Strait at its narrowest point. From above the fortress looks like a large rectangle with one corner chopped off. According to tradition this was deliberate, so that Rumelihisar looks like the spelling of the Prophet’s name. The fortress is most distinguished by its three immense towers: one along the shore, and two on the hill top, whose gun batteries once completely controlled the naval approaches to the city.
The fortress interior is large but fairly straightforward, consisting mostly of a courtyard enclosed by the outer walls and a dozen or so smaller towers and gates. Most of the interior structures are long gone, although the minaret from the fort’s original mosque is still standing. Of interest are the two secret gates located near the southernmost tower.
The Rumelihisari Fortress is located almost exactly half-way between the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea, close to the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge at the narrowest point of the Bosphorus Strait. This is about eight miles northeast of the Old City of Istanbul. As of this writing no visitor information was available. Web: www.greatistanbul.com (official website).
For nearly seventeen centuries, Istanbul was the capital of two major empires, and it had the city walls to prove it. Large stretches of various ancient and medieval fortifications are still evident, including the Theodosian Walls and numerous city gates. The city of Izmir on Turkey’s Aegean Coast boasts the Kadifekale Fortress, a jumble of Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman structures.