‘THE POWERFUL AND
FORTIFIED
ANCYRA’

It seems that the one historical monument all visitors to Ankara remember are those 18 pentagonal towers which appear to rise from the Kaledağı ‘like the prows of advancing ships’. These fortifications were already famous in the 10th or 11th century, for they are referred to in the epic Digenes Akritas, as the ‘famous and great castle, the powerful and fortified Ancyra’. Yet, this ‘young’ city’s most tangible record of its long past is also one of its most enigmatic: other than that these towers are evidently ‘Byzantine’, there is no agreement as to their precise date! And what makes that even more remarkable is that they are the only example of a defensive system first suggested by Philon of Byzantium in c. 200 BC, whose ideas were restated by the Anonymous of Byzantium during the reign of Justinian! It is for that reason that our editor invited this contribution, to indicate something of what is known and what is unknown about Ankara’s fortifications – and hopefully stimulate further debate and research on them.

The İç Kale

(drawing: B. Claasz Coockson)

To begin with, we must note that the pentagonal towers on the west side of the Kaledağı actually belong to the innermost of no less than three defensive systems. Known as the İç Kale, it is a rectangular enclosure measuring about 350 x 150 m, and now contains the Kaleiçi, the heart of ‘Anatolian’ Ankara. The walls survive some 10 m in places, their lower two-thirds built mainly of ‘marble’ spolia, appropriated from the ruins of classical Ancyra - inscriptions, architectural pieces, sculptures, tombstones, altars and even perforated blocks from the aqueduct – while the upper third is of alternating courses of brick- and stone-work.

The İç Kale has no less than 38 two-storied and solid-based pentagonal towers of essentially identical size and type. They are spaced at roughly 8 m intervals along the west front, but slightly more widely on the south and east sides: the north side, overlooking the ravine containing the Ankara Çay (now concealed beneath a modern highway), was not apparently provided with defences until the 1230s. In addition, this circuit incorpora-tes the Şark Kale, a massive counterfort at the south-east corner; a postern gate on the west (Genç Kapı); another on the east (Şark Kapı), and, of course, the Parmak Kapı, a rectangular complex which creates an enclosed ‘killing’ field between the two gateways it contains. Finally we should note the Ak Kale, which occupies the north-east corner of the İç Kale. This, and the two adjacent semi-circular towers clearly added to the east wall, can be dated to the Selçuk period, perhaps the 1230s or the 1250s, when work is recorded on the construction and repair of the ravine defences.

The middle circuit, or Dış Kale, is a towered wall about 1.35 km long, enclosing the slopes to the west of the İç Kale. Now known as the Hisarparkı, this space was formerly occupied by a village-type settlement matching the Kaleiçi above, and was the home of Ankara’s Greek and Armenian communities until destroyed in a disastrous fire in 1917. The lower 2/3rds of the Dış Kale defences are built mainly of andesite blocks, with some re-used ‘marble’ spolia, the upper third being of brick. These walls survive 12 m high in places, and there are only three major breaks in the circuit. As might be expected, one of these is exactly where the Dış Kale circuit joined the İç Kale defences, at the Şark Kale, making the exact relationship between the two quite uncertain without excavation. That apart, this circuit originally had at least 15 square towers, of which 13 survive, and it was pierced by two gateways, the Dış Kapı on the west, and the Hisar Kapı on the south. The former now lacks one of its two flanking semi-circular towers, but the latter survives substantially intact, with later alterations and additions. These include a rebuilt portal, dated to 1330, and a wonderful 19th century clock-tower, whose works and chiming bell are still in place.

Hisar Kapı

(photo: B. Claasz Coockson 1991)

Both of these circuits must pre-date the Turkish occupation of Ancyra in the late 11th century, for almost all the known structures of 'Selçuk' origin lie outside them. The only one inside is the Alaeddin Camii of 1198, behind the Parmak Kapı, evidently the original Ulu Camii of Angora, as the place then began to be called. As it is, it is known that when the Persians captured and destroyed Ancyra in 620/621, this was the classical city centred on the Ulus district and immediately west. Having been retaken by the East Roman Empire in about 628, the region was devastated by   Caliph    Mua’wiya in 654, but from about 658, Ancyra was the base of a newly formed East Roman army unit, the Opsician Theme, and from the 750s its replacement, the 8,000 strong Bucellarian Theme.

Ancyra resisted more Arab attacks in 776 and 797, although the last caused sufficient damage to require substantial reconstruction: Theophanes records that in 805, the emperor Nicephorus ‘founded’ Ancyra. Whatever this re-founding involved, Ancyra apparently fell to the Arabs in 806, for it was then that the doors of the ‘Temple of Augustus’ were allegedly removed and taken to Baghdad as war trophies. Then, in 838, the citizens of Ancyra deserted the place for the ‘safety’ of Amorion after the defeat of the Imperial army at Dazimon in 838. This ‘safety’ proved temporary: Amorion was captured a few weeks later, and its inhabitants slaughtered or led off into slavery. An abandoned Ancyra was subsequently occupied and, it seems, the defences of the İç Kale at least partly breached.

Such is indicated by an inscription incorporated into a rebuilt length of the İç Kale’s curtain immediately adjacent to the Parmak Kapı. It tells us that on 10 June, 859, ‘charming Ancyra, most brilliant of cities, splendor of the whole land of the Galatians’, was ‘refounded’ by the emperor Michael III. It further indicates that a new gate had been provided (presumably the rebuilt Parmak Kapı), and decorated with an icon of Christ, and that Holy Relics were incorporated into the rebuilt fortifications. Whatever, Ancyra was evidently more than adequately refortified by Michael III, for it was avoided by the Arabs when they attacked the region in 931. By 1078, however, it had probably fallen to Alp Arslan’s Turkomen forces in the aftermath of his surprise victory at Manzikert.

Parmak Kapı

(photo: B. Claasz Coockson 1991

It seems clear, then, that the two circuits which form Ankara Kalesi belong to the period from 622 to about 1078. The quantity of re-used material in the İç Kale’s defences is generally taken to indicate that they were built after the Persians devastated classical Ancyra, and probably in c. 658 to house the Opsician Theme. Yet at least three of the pentagonal towers on the east side of the İç Kale are structurally later than the curtain wall, one certainly being a reinforcement of an earlier structure, while the single square tower on this side seems to be contemporary with the curtain. Might it be, therefore, that the curtain wall here represents the original continuation of the middle curtain fortifications, with a series of square towers on the east edge of the Kaledağı? In other words, is the Dış Kale the earlier work, and the İç Kale the later, its east side a re-fortification of an existing perimeter wall?

Both the epigraphic and the historical evidence can indeed be inter-preted to support such a hypothesis. To begin with, we might suggest that the Dış Kale represents a fortified base built to accommodate the Opsician Theme after its formation in c. 658. This was presumably badly damaged if not destroyed in the Arab attack of 797, and thus the Ancyra ‘founded’ by Nicephorus of 797, and thus the Ancyra ‘founded’ by Nicephorus in 805 could be the İç Kale, intended as a final refuge in the event of any future attack. As we have seen, however, for uncertain reasons, Ancyra was deserted in the face of the Arab advance of 838 – perhaps both circuits had fallen into disrepair, or were considered to long for the force available to defend them. Either way, part at least of the İç Kale’s defences were subsequently breached, requiring their re-building by Michael III, the ‘founder of cities’, in 859.

Walls made of ‘marble’ spolia

(photo: B. Claasz Coockson 1991)

Whatever their exact chronology, the Angora Kalesi remained subject to attack for some time to come after its occupation by the Selçuks. The Crusaders, for example, routed the small garrison here on 2 June, 1101, and restored the city to the East Roman Empire for a short period before it capitulated once more to the Turks some time before 1127. Then, for much of the 12th and 13th centuries, Angora alternated between Danışmend and Selçuk rule, the Ak Kale probably and the ravine defences certainly being built between the 1230s and 1250s.

After an initial Ottoman attack in 1354, Angora fell to Sultan Murat in 1360. This initiated a period of rapid urban expansion, during which the area of the classical Ancyra was re-occupied. At some uncertain date afterwards, this Ottoman settlement was enclosed by Ankara’s outer defensive circuit. It must have been in  existence   by July, 1402, for Timur-i Lang (Tamerlane) attempted to destroy a section by diverting the course of the Ankara Çay: this must have been where today’s Keydirli Dolmuş station is, opposite Timerlanedağı. In the event, Angora surrendered to Timur-i Lang after he defeated Beyazıt I on (according to tradition) the site of today’s Esenboga Havalimanı. That apart, the outer defences seem to have survived reasonably complete until at least 1832-33, when they were repaired by İbrahim Paşa during his short-lived revolt against Sultan Mahmut II.

Unfortunately, we can say very little about the nature of this outer circuit. From the mid-19th century onwards, it was progressively destroyed without record and seems to have been totally obliterated by 1926, as it does not appear to be shown on a map of Ankara produced that year. On the other hand, it is depicted on a 17th century panoramic view of Angora, now in Amsterdam’s Riiksmuseum, and its course at least is indicated on von Vincke’s 1839 map of Angora.As might be expected, the painting tells us little in detail about these defences, although it clearly depicts several towers, and a number of structures which survive to this day, such as the Hacı Bayram Camii, the Mehmet Paşa Bedestanı and Kurşunlu Han. From von Vincke’s map, however, we can establish that it was some 3.8 km in length, apparently with at least 7 major gateways and 3 or more posterns. It ran from the north-west corner of the middle circuit to incorporate the northern tip of Ulusdağı, and then across the site of the ‘Caracallan Baths’ to a point near the Ulus Ankaray station, then to the hill now dominated by the Ethnografya Müzesi and across the site of the Central Hospital complex to Hacitepe Parkı, from where it returned north-east to incorporate the Şükriye Mahalesı, and then directly north-west to ascend Kaledağı and connect with the Ak Kale.

While we must regret the complete loss of any trace of the outer circuit, we must also be thankful that so much still stands of the inner defences. After all, it was these which inspired the composer of Digenes Akritas, spreading the fame of ‘the famous and great castle, the powerful and fortified Ancyra’ through what remained of the East Roman Empire. We must only hope that the current programme of restoration work on these defences does not end up ‘Disneyfying’ them, and most importantly, that someone, someday, will take on the challenge of studying this magnificent reminder of Ankara’s long and sometimes bloody past.

Julian Bennett

Walls made of ‘marble’ spolia

(photo: B. Claasz Coockson 1991)

S. Eyice, ‘Ankara’nın Eski Bir Resimi’, in Atatürk Konferansları 4: 1970 (1971), 61-124. This discusses and illustrates the Amsterdam painting and also reproduces von Vincke’s 1839 map of Angora, among others.

G. Jerphanion, ‘La Citadelle Byzantine d’Angora’, in G.Jerphanion, Mélanges d’Archéologie Anatolienne (Beirut 1928), 144-222. A detailed discussion of the defences, although as the author notes, his plans are not absolutely precise because ‘I often had to hide while doing them since the police were extremely suspicious about my activities’!

E. Mamboury, ‘La Citadelle’, in E. Mamboury, Ankara, Guide Touristique (Istanbul, 1933), 144-188. Mainly based on Jerphanion’s survey, but more comprehensive – presumably because Mamboury had official permission to do the work, which Jerphanion evidently did not!

Plan of the fortifications

(Drawn by B. Claasz Coockson 2002)









Newsletter No. 1 - 2002, Pg. 28, 32

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