Istanbul – city of legends and fairy tales

Istanbul – city of legends and fairy tales

Istanbul – city of legends and fairy tales

Rumeli Hisari. By J. D. Woodward Pinx.

A city of 400 legends and 100 fairy tales could only be Istanbul, the mysterious city overlooking the Sea of Marmara, the Bosphorus Strait and the Golden Horn. Oh, what stories these walls and streets could tell if only we could hear them.

Istanbul’s stories begin some 8000 years ago as we know now from the excavations for the Marmaray Tunnel. We’ll probably never know whether its location between Asia and Europe was a staging point for the Neanderthals and the later hunter-gatherers and farmers who may have been the source of the Indo-European languages we see today in Europe and seem to have spread west through Anatolia.

 Anyone who looks at Istanbul’s history will learn that its eponymous founder was Prince Byzas who was supposed to have come from Megara in Greece in 666 B.C. but they’re less likely to know about the various Greek gods that were associated with it such as Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Hecate and many more. A number of the villages established along the Bosphorus were founded by one or another of the gods or their offspring. One legend has it that when a king in Thrace married a nymph, he was given the area on which Topkapı Palace was built as a wedding gift. A second legend has Poseidon’s son being nursed when he was a baby by a nymph who lived near a spring and when he grew up he founded Byzantium, giving the city his own name.

And of course, the famous Argonauts, including Jason and Medea, sailed through the Bosphorus in search of the Golden Fleece at the east end of the Black Sea and on returning were hotly pursued by Medea’s father or, in some versions, her brother. Medea established a health center called a therapia and that name became Tarabya.

Many centuries later, Kanuni Sultan Süleyman commanded his chief architect, Mimar Sinan, to build him a mosque that could be seen from everywhere in Istanbul, not an impossible task given that almost all the buildings in the 16th city were around a maximum of three stories in height. Mimar Sinan then went everywhere in the city to find the best place until one night he saw the Prophet Muhammad in a dream, who showed him where he should build the mosque. When Sinan woke up, he immediately went to the place he’d been shown and found it was exactly the right spot for his master’s mosque. It reminds one of how Fatih Sultan Mehmed’s teacher saw in a dream where Abu Ayyüb al-Ansari, a standard bearer of the Prophet Muhammad, was buried following the conquest of Constantinople.

How does Sümbül Efendi’s mosque fit in? The place used to be a convent in the time of Byzantine Emperor Constantine XI (r. 1449-1453) and for some reason there was a mysterious chain on top of a high cypress tree and it was still hanging from the tree when Sümbül Sinan Efendi was buried there in 1529. The tree itself was supposed to have been planted by Cabir, one of the Prophet Muhammad’s companions. Then, one night Sultan Mahmud II (r. 1808-1839) had a dream in which he saw the daughters of Hasan and Hüseyin, the two sons of the Caliph Ali, were buried there. So in the morning, the sultan went there and, after praying, he summoned a blacksmith and had an iron fence made around the area.


Fishing on the Bosphorus. By Thomas Allom.
Legends vs. fairy tales

The above examples are legends taken from Ferhat Aslan’s “Istanbul Efsaneleri” (Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality’s Kültür A.Ş.). In this illustrated volume, Arslan has collected some 400 legends related to Istanbul from the earliest times to the end of the Ottoman period, from mythology to buildings to the end times. It will be a while before we have legends relating to Istanbul in the Republican era. The author sees his book’s readers as being those who enjoy going on nostalgic journeys and who are interested in history and art.

A legend per se may have a real historical basis or it may not. Often it comes from the beliefs that people generally hold and many accept as true. The source of the legend, when it is finally written down, can be identified at least from when it originated. It’s not hard to accept that stories about Prince Byzas or the Argonauts are of Greek origin. They were first written down in Greek and tell the story of people who were considered Greek.

Differentiating a fairy tale from a legend is difficult, although the various characters and plot lines in a fairy tale can be found in many cultures spread throughout the world. It is not located in any one place and most often contains an element of the unreal such as dwarves, talking fish, dragons and the like. Stith Thompson in his book “The Folktale” points out that the folk tale covers the whole range of oral narrative and writes that it “is applied to stories filled with incredible marvels, in contrast to legends that are presumably based upon fact.”

Legends of Istanbul

Aslan tackles the issue of the fairy tale in his “Istanbul’un 100 Masali” (Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality’s Kultur A.S.), in which he recounts the many stories that are told, beginning with “Bir Varmış, bir yokmuş”, translated into English as “Once upon a time.” According to Aslan, the fairy tale has to be entertaining first of all, providing a pleasant way to pass the time. Fairy tales carry societies’ cultural, social, psychological and moral characteristics and pass them along to future generations. He adds they are educational, for example in terms of the animal tales. A look at the table of contents gives some idea of what he means – “The Fairies’ Padişah,” “Fish Nymph,” “Magic Mirror,” “The Stag Prince,” “The Padişah of Golden Mountain,” etc. There’s even a version of Cinderella in the form of “Pamuk Hanım,” although the girl starts out as a cotton doll and ends up marrying the prince. And who doesn’t know the story of Ali Baba and the forty thieves? Except there’s a slight twist on the European version, since in this version Ali Baba’s wife gets greedy and the thieves catch her in a cave and kill her.

So Istanbul’s 400 legends and 100 fairy tales continue on, leaving us to wonder what the city’s future legends and fairy tales will be.