How I Climbed The Valens Aqueduct In Istanbul

The city of Istanbul is where the old world collides with the new. In the midst of a bustling, vibrant metropolis are the reminders of its former incarnation as Constantinople, seat of the Eastern Roman Empire. Lodged between Byzantine churches, Roman cisterns, and obelisks that represent Istanbul’s long, proud history, is the Valens Aqueduct, a 95-foot (29-meter) tall waterway that crosses over the Ataturk Bulvari, one of the city’s busiest boulevards. As my travel companion, Alex and I wandered through the alleyways of the old city, walked past the ruins of ancient fortresses, and crossed the floating bridges over the Bosporus, we admired at this monument to Constantinople’s golden age and made the same decision.

Let’s walk across it.

How I Climbed The Valens Aqueduct - Clapway

The aqueduct’s surviving section spans over 3,000-feet (920-meters) with a flat passageway that caps the two tiers. On the western facing side, the roof sharply declines via a ramp to a single tier brick wall. Alex and I followed the length and found a section, no more than 25-feet high, where we could get onto the first tier. It was late afternoon as we hopped a small chain link fence and kept vigilant for police, who no doubt would frown upon our obvious trespassing. The wall was broken into two ledges – one we could surmount on our own, the second, which would require us to boost each other up the side. At the base of the wall were pieces of strewn rubble, broken glass and bits of debris, which would hurt were we to fall.

We comfortably pulled ourselves up the first ledge and ran our fingers on the grainy limestone brick. There was no way to climb the last 15-feet by hand safely. I would lift Alex’s foot by hand, then I would jump and he would catch me. In other words: Foolproof.

I cradled his foot in my intertwined fingers and on a count of three I boosted him to the higher ledge. The tile on the roof was smooth and terracotta-like so there was no place for me to grip. I had exactly one chance for Alex to grab my arm and pull me up to the top-tier. I took a short running start, stepped my foot on the wall and leaped, slapping my palm onto the tiles for support as I felt a reassuring hand grasp my other arm and pull me onto the roof. With a small grunt, I pulled myself up and over the lip.

We were now standing on the roof of a 1,600 year-old Roman conduit.

Just ahead, a short stairway elevated the walkway to the upper arches. We weren’t alone at the top, as other visitors lounged in the mid-June early evening, watching the sun set low behind the Blue Mosque. Traversing the 25-foot wide tiled path, we had to carefully step around large potholes where we could see traffic passing underneath, while shrubs and vines slowly reclaimed the cracks. To the east, the minarets of the Sultan Ahmet Mosque contrasted the modern skyline, while to the west; the tiled dome of the Hagia Sofia glittered in the twilight. As if we didn’t already realize the significance of where we were, something unforgettable happened.

How I Climbed The Valens Aqueduct - Clapway
How I Climbed The Valens Aqueduct - ClapwayPhotos Courtesy of Michael Restivo

It started as a low groan through the tin-like sound of a loudspeaker, and evolved into a singsong chant emanating from the mosque behind us. Instantaneously, an older gentleman next to us turned toward Mecca and knelt, bowing his head into the terracotta brick. As one mosque began the call, another, just due north, followed suit, and then another, until the dusk air was rich with the sound of spirituality and tradition set against a city that appeared to be bathed in gold. Here we were, two travelers, sitting on a 4th-century aqueduct, reveling in this breathtaking moment of profound beauty. For us, it wasn’t about faith or belief, but the appreciation of a culture that a day prior we knew very little about. With goose bumps on my skin, I sat cross-legged, stared over the Bosporus, and took in this once in a lifetime moment.

As the call to prayer dissipated into the summer evening, we crossed the full length of the aqueduct to the east end, where a team of construction workers placed a ladder for us to descend. We thanked them and scurried away quickly to not draw unwanted attention. In a city that’s known for its transcontinental identity, we bore witness to the intersection of the old world and the new; Roman heritage intertwined with the Ottoman Empire. If there was any place where we could experience thousands of years of cross-cultural history in a single afternoon, it had to be in Istanbul.