The Ottomans bridge the Golden Horn

The Ottomans bridge the Golden Horn

The Ottomans bridge the Golden Horn

View of Constantinople from Pera Across the Golden Horn. Luigi De Brocktorff

It seems very odd that the Byzantines only once thought of putting a bridge across the Golden Horn. The Romans could build such splendid aqueducts, but they didn’t build a bridge there. The Byzantines on the other hand did construct one in the sixth century during the reign of Justinian the Great. So why did the Ottomans wait until 1836 to finally build one linking Unkapanı and Azapkapı even though Fatih Sultan Mehmed had made a bridge across the Golden Horn by lashing his ships together so his troops could cross over during the siege of Constantinople?

Leonardo da Vinci even designed one in 1502 for Sultan Bayezid II but it was never built because the sultan did not approve of it. The bridge was intended to be 240 meters long, eight meters wide and 24 meters above the waterline. From time to time, the idea of constructing it surfaces but nothing ever comes of it. [A smaller version of his proposed bridge has been erected in Norway however.]

Zeynep Çelik, in her book “The Remaking of Istanbul,” writes that the first bridge over the Golden Horn was constructed in 1836 between Unkapanı and Azapkapı because the imperial shipyards were at Azapkapi. Made of wood, this pontoon structure “had two arches that provided the necessary height for the passage of small boats. It was about 600 meters in length and 10 meters in width.” 

Çelik notes that Karaköy and the Pera/Beyoğlu and Beşiktaş areas weren’t sufficiently busy to warrant the construction of a bridge between Karaköy and Eminönü until after 1838. Still there might have been reluctance on the part of the Ottomans to have a direct connection between the two places. The Eminönü area and Galata/Pera above it were from the Byzantine era onwards inhabited by foreigners and of these only a few were Muslim such as the Arabs who were driven out of Spain in the 15th century. Another reason why the Ottomans might have been reluctant would have been the size of the ships entering the Golden Horn. A. Theophile Cassagne (1823-1907) shows the estuary at Eyüp with a three-masted schooner and a steam ship with masts anchored just off shore. The French artist however doesn’t show any bridges. There is no date given for his painting but there must have been at least one bridge, probably the Galata Bridge that couldn’t have been seen from the artist’s perspective. And that bridge had to be one that opened to allow such ships through or Cassagne took some artistic license with the scene that is highly detailed.

The Galata Bridges

The next bridge, built in 1845 between Karaköy and Eminönü, carried the rather unimaginative name “New Bridge” to distinguish it from the one at Unkapanı. The idea was first promoted by Bezm-i Alem Sultan probably because of her particular interest in various building projects in the Dolmabahçe-Yıldız Palace area. As the Valide Sultan, that is as the mother of Sultan Abdulmecid I, she wielded significant power and held that position until her death in 1853. Her son was the first person to pass over the bridge. A toll was collected from those passing over the bridge to defray the costs of building it.

The Galata Bridge was made of timber and measured some 500 meters. It was replaced in 1863 with another, second timber bridge that was stronger than the first one. This was the year that the Ottomans hosted an international exposition and French Empress Eugenie was among the guests. It is thought that the new bridge would spruce up the city’s appearance. Smoking was forbidden on the bridge that was also closed at night.

Prior to this bridge, the only way to cross between Karaköy and Eminönü had been by kayık or rowboat. The Italian writer Edmondo de Amicis writes rather rapturously about taking a kayık in 1874, but it’s not clear whether he was crossing the Golden Horn or simply going on a tour of the estuary. In addition to their swift passage on the colorful boats, the boatmen are dressed up and even wearing fezes. One could still take such a colorful boat across as late as the 1970s although the boatmen were hardly in costume.

Çelik also relates a rather strange story behind the replacement of the Second Galata Bridge by a British firm. The structure was supposed to have an iron framework and would be supported by 14 iron pontoons. The hitch proved to be the proposal that the approaches to the bridge ought to be along quite wide quays but this proved to be more expensive than anticipated. So the British company suggested that their proposed bridge replace the old bridge between Unkapanı and Azapkapı and this was done in 1872. The Ottoman government accepted a new proposal; construction began in 1875 and was completed in 1878.

“This iron structure with wood planking was 480 meters long and 14 meters wide, the width consisting of two 2.15-meter sidewalks and a 9.70-meter vehicular strip. The bridge, supported by twenty-four pontoons, could be opened in the middle to allow the passage of sea traffic. Toward either end, shops, restaurants, and coffeehouses were built. There was even a sea bath near Eminönü, facing the Golden Horn.” (Çelik, “The Remaking of Istanbul”)

It wasn’t until 1912 that this Third Galata Bridge was replaced with one that lasted until the 1990s. After the Fourth Bridge was badly damaged by fire in 1992, it was towed up the Golden Horn, replaced by the current Fifth Galata Bridge. The pieces of the third bridge were towed to Unkapanı where they were reassembled. Damaged in a big storm in 1936, this second bridge at Unkapanı was replaced with the current bridge named after Ataturk.

A third bridge was built in 1863 between Ayvansaray and Piripaşa but it only lasted ten days. The owners of rowboats were so angry at having their livelihood taken away from them that they tore it down. Perhaps they were just as angry when the first Unkapanı and the first Galata Bridges went up but we have no information about that. Still it seems likely. Even today there are people who get angry about bridges here in Istanbul.