There’s a popular story about the all-famous Galata Tower in the Karaköy district of Istanbul. It has to do with a 17th-century scientist who glided from the top of the tower all the way to the Asian side. Maybe.
Hezarfen Ahmed Çelebi was his name and he was really famous. Most of what we know about him is from the writings of Evliya Çelebi, an Ottoman explorer and adventurer. Including the so-called Galata Tower flight.
The Galata Tower
If you’re a tourist in Istanbul, after going to Hagia Sophia, Sultanahmet Mosque, and Kapali Carsi, you will likely go across the Golden Horn to a neighborhood nowadays called Karaköy (still in Europe).
Its historic name and one that is still in use is Galata. Like in Galatasaray, the football team.
There is the Galata Tower, a tall, stone tower that always has a long queue of tourists waiting patiently to see Istanbul from above.
The Galata Tower was built in 1348 by the then-rulers of this part of Constantinople – the Genoese. They did not rule all of the city, just this neighborhood. Times were tumultuous.
When it was completed, the Galata Tower was the tallest structure in Constantinople and the Christian Genoese gave it the name the Tower of Christ.
Today it’s one of the most visited places in Istanbul, towering above its surroundings due to its position on a natural hill and its still-impressive height.
Hezarfen Ahmed Çelebi
Hezarfen Ahmed Çelebi was an Ottoman scientist and inventor from the beginning of the 17th century. His first name – Hezarfen – literally means “a thousand sciences“. Fitting.
Actually, it’s surprising that not much else is known about Hezarfen apart from his feat of flying (more like gliding) over the Bosphorus using only wings.
The Legend of the Galata Tower Flight
The story of this incredible flight was told by Evliya Çelebi.
First Hezarfen practiced 8 or 9 times just gliding a short distance with his “eagle wings” and then when the time was right got to the top of the Galata Tower.
What were Hezarfen Ahmed Çelebi’s wings made of?
We don’t know for sure what material Hezarfen’s wings were made out of. Evliya Çelebi says that they were eagle wings without specifying any further.
If we are to speculate, the wings were most probably made out of a light wooden base coated with a sticky substance over which hundreds of actual feathers were spread and glued.
The Sultan watched the flight
Hezarfen waited on top of the tower for the Sultan, Murat IV, to get on his balcony in the Topkapi Palace on the other side of the Golden Horn. The Sultan watched as Hezarfen leaped from the top of the Galata Tower towards the Asian side of Constantinople.
Hezarfen landed in Doğancılar Square in Üsküdar, with the help of the south-west wind.
Sultan Murat then rewarded him with a sack of gold coins for this incredible achievement. He then said that what Hezarfen did was uncanny, borderline magical, and that he could do anything he wished for. The Sultan couldn’t surround himself with such dangerous people.
So he just exiled him to Algeria. Poor Hezarfen.
That’s not even the end of the story!
Hezarfen had a brother called Lagâri Hasan Çelebi. He really wanted to outdo his exiled brother and a year later (1633) with the use of explosives launched himself from near Topkapi Palace up in the sky before falling into the Bosphorus and proclaiming that Jesus sends his regards to the Sultan (Predating Roose Bolton by almost 4 centuries, or maybe copying the real Englishman just 2 centuries after. We will never know).
Did he get exiled too? Nah, he got promoted. His brother was fuming in Algeria when he found out.
Nonetheless, Hezarfen got a whole airport named after him today, so who’s laughing last?
A Scientific Look into Hezarfen’s Galata Flight
The flight, if true, would be one of the first-ever unpowered human flights in the history of humanity. Unfortunately, it’s a bit suspicious.
Most historians today agree that Evliya Çelebi’s story was greatly exaggerated (he is known to do that) and maybe some sort of a flight happened, but it definitely wasn’t over the entire Bosphorus.
The thing is, the height differential between his start point and the endpoint is about 80 meters, whereas the distance is a whopping 3300 meters. Check it out here:
Some quick maths and we get ~41 meters of flight for every meter drop.
Get a medium-sized rock right now and try to throw it 82 meters (assuming your hand is at a height of 2m). You can’t.
Now imagine doing that with a whole human dressed as a mascot for an ornithology convention.
The Verdict: Did the Galata Tower Flight really happen?
Most legends throughout the world are to some extent based on real events. But Hezarfen really couldn’t have flown all that distance with simple wings.
Even today, using just wings, it would still be impossible to do this flight. It’s just not enough height for the distance one has to cover.
All in all, the flight most certainly didn’t happen as told by Evliya Celebi and may have actually been a much shorter and safer affair. We will never know.