Once Jason needed a pigeon to get past Rumeli Feneri. Today all you need is a spirit of discovery
Cosmopolitan Istanbul has straddled the Bosporus in a way that has rendered the city and the strait synonymous. But alongside the passage of water between the Black and the Marmara seas an explorer can find some utterly un-Istanbul-like highlights, which differ immensely from a standard sightseeing tour of the strait.
One of them is Rumeli Feneri.
In theory at least, this piece of land is part of the Istanbul megapolis, but even the most detailed travel guides fail to mention its name. And even if you know for sure that such a place exists, you'll need to put some effort into finding it. Rumeli Feneri is on the sea shore but is impossible to reach by taking the picturesque road along the European coast of the Bosporus. Just before you get near the place the road ends at the solemn gate of a Turkish military base. The road from Istanbul – the Istanbul worshipped by tourists, bohemians, poets and historians – to Rumeli Feneri cuts through inland, but you have to be prepared to rough it for a while, and even overcome some challenges during your quest. After all, this bit of land is located at Europe's very end. In fact, it is the end of Europe.
Rumeli Feneri has an idyllic beauty that rather befits a postcard from the Cote d'Azur than the tip of a continent. A cape with cliffs projects into a photogenic sea. A white lighthouse rises on the promontory and it is this that has given the place its name, as Rumeli Feneri translates as "European Lighthouse."
There's a deep cove near the cape that's full of yachts and fishing boats, all white too, or at least most of them.
Rumeli Feneri is a border not only in relation to Europe as a continent. The lighthouse is one of the two points that delimit the Black Sea border of the Bosporus. The other is the lighthouse on the opposite shore, which, logically, bears the name of Anadolu Feneri, the "Asian Lighthouse."
The Rumeli Feneri lighthouse is a relatively new construction, the product of the attempt at building modern infrastructure that the Ottoman Empire started during the Crimean War of 1853-56. This military conflict was central for the popularisation of a string of technological and intellectual novelties in the empire. Its European lands were full of French and English troops, who introduced the locals to concepts such as theatre, and musical instruments such as the violin. Sultan Abdülmecid I (1839-61), for his part, recognised that his empire was falling behind Europe and tried to catch up speedily.
Building the lighthouses Rumeli and Anadolu was part of this effort. Communications and navigation in the Black Sea were in need of improvement, and the sultan decreed accordingly.
Rumeli Feneri was built by a French concessionaire, who was awarded the right to collect service fees for the next 100 years. Rumeli Feneri was lit for the first time in 1856. Thirty metres high, it is today Turkey's tallest lighthouse. The building that houses it is a cultural monument and a magnet for tourists.
The lighthouse is still operational, though this is not the case with the two fortresses that the Ottomans built earlier on either side of the promontory – they are now deserted and in various states of disrepair.
During the Cold War Rumeli Feneri’s fortress was off-limits Turkish Army territory
Situated atop a cliff to the northwest, the fortress of Rumeli Feneri still bears the signs of recent military use. The fortress was built in the 18th Century as an outpost of the defence of the Bosporus against the Russian Navy.
It was a genuine threat. During the centuries of its existence and expansion, the Russian Empire was at a huge disadvantage: though it was big enough, circumstances had left it with no sea ports that didn't freeze in the long cold winters. Thus, controlling the Black Sea and the straits, which connect it with the Mediterranean, became the Empire's principal political objective.
From the 18th Century onwards, the Tsars waged a series of wars with the sultans for the control of the Bosporus and the Dardanelles. These wars brought about a multitude of developments – including the increase in the influence the Russians had among the Christian peoples in the Balkans and, in 1878, the liberation of the Bulgarians from Ottoman rule. But despite sustaining losses elsewhere, the Ottomans succeeded in keeping the Bosporus.
The Rumeli Feneri fortress was a key segment of the defence of the straits. It kept its role also during the Cold War, when the Russia of the Tsars was replaced by the USSR and its retinue of obedient Socialist states. The Bosporus remained an important passage and guarding it was vital.
That is why red Turkish Army plaques still hang on the wire fence that surrounds the fortress, prohibiting absolutely any entry or photography, but today both entering and taking pictures are allowed. On the weekends the empty fortress is full of tourists – chiefly Turks from the surrounding areas – who chatter, eat sunflower seeds and click their mobiles and cameras.
Most of the fortifications at the Rumeli Feneri fortress are now in ruins, a labyrinth of crumbling staircases and tumble-down corridors that make any exploration there a dangerous undertaking. However, the fortress wall, with its multitude of arches overlooking the sea, has been almost entirely preserved.
When you cast a glance through the arches – any one of them – you can see the dark waters of the Black Sea and groups of ships awaiting clearance to enter the strait. Every now and then one of the vessels breaks away and slowly moves towards the mouth of the strait.
Soon after the fortress at Rumeli Feneri was built, the Ottomans realised that it was not enough. As a result, a second fortification appeared on the southeast of the promontory – the Papazburnu battery. Now only a wall and a bunker remain, but when you look seaward from here, you know why the military chose this spot.
From Papazburnu you can scan the entire entrance to the Bosporus, the near Asiatic coast, the ships and fishermen's boats.
According to some geologists, the landscape that you see from the abandoned battery was formed relatively recently. Some 9,000 years ago the Black Sea used to be a large lake and there was dry land where the Bosporus is now. The strait was formed when the lake overflowed into the Marmara and the Mediterranean seas.
The Bosporus’s entrance from the Black Sea. The Russian Empire’s ambition to control the strait forced the Ottomans to shore up the northern coast
Some scientists believe that it is this geological event of catastrophic proportions that remained in the collective memory of the people from the Eastern Mediterranean and underlay the stories of the Flood. The mouth of the Bosporus is also the setting of other mythological fables.
The Ancient Greeks used to recount the story that, en route to Colchis (in today's Georgia) and the precious Golden Fleece, Jason and the Argonauts passed through the Bosporus, but to enter the Black Sea they had to overcome a terrifying challenge.
The entrance to the Black Sea was guarded by the Symplegades – two high cliffs that were continuously moving away from and then slamming into each other, crushing to pulp anything in-between.
Following the advice of a blind fortuneteller, Jason was the first person to make it through the Symplegades unscathed. He sent a pigeon to fly ahead and the bird managed to pass through a split second before the rocks crashed into each other again. The Argo rowers pushed on the oars and the ship squeezed through. At the moment when Jason and his fellow seekers entered the Black Sea, the rocks froze, opening the strait forever.
Contemporary historians accept the story of Jason's trip to Colchis as the echo of real historical events – the colonisation of the Black Sea by the Greeks, which started around 800 BC precisely in the territories around Georgia. Getting to know the Black Sea, the waters of which offered no islands to stop off on, and the strange people who lived on its shores proved an arduous process that took centuries. The tales about the hard times the Argonauts went through are the echo of these ancient times.
But the ancients considered them to have been real events and sought – in the cliffs, waters and islands around them – the place where the mythical heroes had gone through one adventure or another. They even believed they knew exactly where the Symplegades were. They thought that the European part of the couple was a cliffy islet near today's Rumeli Feneri.
The islet is open for visits – a modern concrete quay leads to it.