Thursday, August 14, 2008

Turkey Travelogue: Basilica Cistern

When I was a kid, there was a cistern room in the basement of my turn-of-the-century home. At one time, it was used to hold rainwater, but someone had long ago knocked a hole through the cistern wall to make a door, so that the space could be used as a room. I always thought it was a pretty cool feature of the house, and I don't think I've encountered another underground cistern since then -- until this summer, when I got to visit a most breathtaking water storage system: the Basilica Cistern (later known as Yerebatan Sarayı to the Ottomans), which was originally built under Constantinople by Emperor Justinian. He added the Cistern after the Nika riots because at the time, the city sometimes suffered from droughts during the summer.

We got to wander between the 336 Ionic, Corinthian and Doric columns on walkways that run above the water (the capacity of the Cistern is 100,000 tons of water). Some classical music was playing quietly, adding a bit of atmosphere to the drip-drip of the water around us (sometimes there was also a punctuating splash from the fish who live there).

If you're ever in Istanbul during the heat of the summer, be sure to save your visit to the Cistern for an afternoon when you need a break from the sun and heat -- it is a wonderful relief to walk into the cool, damp, peaceful surroundings after being up in the busy, hot city for a while.

It is thought that this teardrop/peacock patterned column was added during one of the several restorations of the Cistern, but I can't find much information beyond that.

At one point the water was drained from the Cistern for the work being done and two of the columns were found to be resting on enormous carved Medusa heads -- one laid on its side and the other sitting upside down. It is not known where the heads came from.

The mythology of the Cistern holds that during construction, the one Medusa head was placed upside down so that the people looking at it wouldn't be turned to stone.

The Cistern is yet another Istanbul location that has served as a location in a James Bond movie -- in this case, film was From Russia With Love.


Ewa said...

Hi, this place unbelievable. I have seen it 4 years ago. It is alsolutely 'must see' place if one is in Istanbul.

smijer said...

These are wonderful!

Keera said...

Wow! Marvelous place and good photos! Is the water still potable?

alice said...

I don't think it is (though it's clean enough for fish to live down there). After the Ottomans captured the city in the mid-15th-century, they didn't discover the cistern for a century. They finally found it because they noticed that some residents could get water (and even sometimes fish!) by lowering buckets into holes in their basement floors. Unfortunately, once they found it, the Ottomans used the cistern as a dump for all kinds of stuff (including corpses), so it must have gotten kind of gross before it was restored (for the first time) in the 18th century. It was opened to the public after the most recent restoration from 1985-1987 and since then, I assume the water level has been kept low (below the walking platforms) and relatively clean, but I don't know about potable.

Keera said...

To this modern woman it seems rather charming to have a well of sweetwater right in your own basement. So I was wondering if it were still possible. Thanks for the (somewhat icky) details on the cistern's history. :-)