I was thrilled, after taking the old train along the Marmara shore to Yedikule (Seven Towers), to find myself standing before the legendary Golden Gate of Byzantium. It looks sadly forgotten now and not many visitors to Istanbul make it to this relative outpost. But it was a glory of the city for centuries and witness to some breathtaking pageantry and triumphal entries of the emperors after their incessant campaigns.
The Castle of the Seven Towers is partly Byzantine and partly Ottoman, with three of the towers in the Theodosian walls and the other four later additions dating from a few years after the conquest in 1453. The two main towers in the Byzantine walls flank the Golden Gate.
The Golden Gate was built by Theodosius the Great in 390. As was the Roman tradition, this triumphal arch stood alone on the Via Egnatia, a mile beyond the city, as the present walls had not yet been built. You can still see clearly the outlines of the arches making up the triple arcade, although they were bricked up in later Byzantine times. The gates were covered in gold plate and must have shone gloriously in the Mediterranean sun.
Numerous Byzantine emperors passed through the Golden Gate in triumphal procession after the time of Theodosius I: Heraclius after defeating the Persians in 629; Constantine V and Basil I after defeating the Bulgars; John I Tzimisces and Michael III after crushing the Saracens. After recapturing Constantinople from the Latins, Michael VIII Palaeologus passed through this magnificent arch on a white charger, the last emperor to do so because for Byzantium it was all downhill for the next two centuries until that fateful year.
It’s possible to feel, amongst the vast curtain walls and forbidding towers, small and insignificant here. I personally feel exquisitely at peace with myself, as what are my paltry involvements when compared to the dark backward and abysm of time which is represented so eloquently in this place? It’s so rich in history that opposites and feuding forces have been reconciled to create a perfect calm, far beyond our workaday concerns and better than any yoga class. To think at all seems completely unnecessary and even vulgar.
I’m convinced that if I lived in Yedikule and touched the Golden Gate every morning I wouldn’t age or be unhappy ever again.