Basilica Cistern – Istanbul, Turkey

I hate snakes.

No, this is not a quote from Indiana Jones. It’s more along the lines of an honest admission of an irrefutable fact.

I understand that they are among God’s creatures, and therefore deserve all of our awe and fascination for all their biological marvels. But I absolutely have a pathological loathing for the slithery monsters. The very thought of them sends that horrible shiver up my spine.

I can sense your confusion. What do snakes have to do with the topic in question – the Basilica Cistern in Istanbul ?

Close your eyes. Go ahead, do it. Now quickly say the words “Basilica Cistern” thrice in succession.

Did you hear it ? The awful susurration reminiscent of scales slithering along the ground ? It even sounds out the word “Basilisk”, which as we all know from Harry Potter, is a big evil snake.

Which crawls around a labyrinthine underground cavern, waiting to strike and devour its prey.

You get the association now, don’t you ? This was my top of the mind recall when I visited the Cistern.

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It derives its sibilant name from the Stoa Basilica, beneath which it was originally constructed during the Roman age in the 3rd and 4th centuries, and rebuilt and enlarged during the reign of the Byzantine emperor Justinian in the 6th century. Apparently, argument over who won a chariot race disintegrated in a frenzy today’s football hooligans would be proud of, called the Nika revolt, which resulted in the destruction of much of the city. The cistern was conceived and constructed as part of the rebuilding effort.

As I walk down the 52 steps from street level into the dark depths of the cavern, I’m not thinking about how this is the largest surviving Byzantine cistern among several hundreds in Istanbul today. Its about 9800 metres in size, close to being as large as 2 football fields. It is capable of holding 80000 cubic metres of water delivered by 20 km of aqueducts, water that was delivered to the Great Palace of Constantinople, and thereafter to the Topkapi Palace during Ottoman Rule.

The cross shaped vaults are held up by 336 marble columns, each about 30 feet high, arranged in 12 rows of 28 columns each. In keeping with the ancient system of recycling called “spoliation”, these columns were salvaged from other sites all over the empire and brought to Constantinople, so you’ll see Ionic, Doric and Corinthian pillars, all assembled here, and carved out of different kinds of marble.

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Amazing what slave labor got you in those days. It is said that over 7000 slaves toiled over the construction of the cistern. In fact, there is one column which, unlike the majority of the others, is engraved, with what looks like a whole lot of eyes. Ancient texts suggest that this column, called the Peacock column, represents the tears shed by the hundreds of slaves who died during the construction of the cistern.

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Entering the cistern, I am immediately struck by how dark it is. And how cool it is, compared to the surface. Post the several renovations conducted through the years, there are now elevated wooden walkways to navigate the forest of columns, in a cathedralesque space with mood lighting. Haunting Turkish music piping from hidden speakers throughout keep company with the sound of water dripping from the columns. This immense storage device now just has a few feet of water, and you can stand and look at the ghostly fish flitting about the dark spaces. And, if you let your imagination run riot, other long, slithering shadows…..

At the far back, in the northwest corner, are 2 famous columns with the Medusa heads as their bases. You know, the legendary gorgon sister, gazing upon whose face would turn onlookers to stone. Must have been her crowning glory – you guessed it, snakes.

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One of the Medusa heads is positioned upside down, and one is placed on its side. This irregular placing has baffled scholars for decades. A possible theory is that Medusa heads were often used the same way an Evil Eye is used to ward off evil, and it was common practice to place the heads in this way in order to cancel out the power of the Medusa’s gaze. Or it could be that the sideways position of the head was the best position to support the column, we just don’t know.

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To think, we would never have known about this underground treasure in the first place. Forgotten by time, the cistern lay beneath the floors of the houses of Istanbul’s residents. Till 1545, when a scholar named Petrus Gyllius, who was in town researching Byzantine history, heard stories of how residents were able to draw water from beneath their floors, and even fish, right from the comforts of their own kitchens.

Post its discovery, the Ottomans initially used it as a big refuse pit, dumping garbage and corpses into its depths. Eventually, its importance as a source of water was realised and repairs were carried out in the 18th and 19th centuries, and modern day restorations meant that the cistern was finally able to be enjoyed by the public. It is used now as a performance venue for classical music, Sufi poetry recitals, and Ney concerts during Ramadan and I can see how the atmosphere can contribute to making an unforgettable evening.

This very atmosphere was the reason the cistern was used as a location in the Bond film “From Russia With Love, showing James Bond rowing a small boat through the maze of columns. In the past, visitors could channel their inner Bond by renting a rowboat to float around the columns, but today you’ll have to make do with the walkways. In recent times, the cistern has relived its celluloid fame by starring in the finale of the 2009 film, “The International”. And although it has featured in a couple of Clive Cussler’s bestsellers, it was the climax of the last Dan Brown novel, “Inferno”, that has rekindled interest in it as major tourist attraction.

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All reptilian allegories aside, it really is an otherworldly, even romantic place, away from the hustle and bustle of street level Istanbul, its cool, cavernous depth making for a welcome retreat from the heat of summer. There is a reason its Turkish name is Yerebatan Sarayi or “Sunken Palace”, as its elegant and symmetrical construction is reminiscent of a grand, regal space. So much better than “Cistern”. Recent additions include the “Cistern Cafe”, where you can sit and ponder on the passage of time, while the cistern lay here in the shadows, waiting to be discovered.

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So when you are in Istanbul, walk across after you visit those other great behemoths – the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sofia, and feel the centuries slip away as you descend through several layers of this incredible city’s history.

Just don’t think of snakes.

Practical Information

What   : Istanbul’s largest underground cistern, dating from the 6th century.

Where : Just across the street from the Aya Sofia in Sultanahmet, Istanbul. It is opposite the yellow colored building of the Tourist Police, with the entrance in a small building next to the tram line.

When  : Open everyday from 9.00 am to 6.30 pm. Entry fee is 20 Turkish Lira for foreign visitors. Your visit should take between 30 minutes to 1 hour. More information here.

Why    : History and Mystery combine in a cool, serene sanctuary, away from Sultanahmet’s din and chaos.

Do       : Walk all the way to the far left hand corner of the cistern to see the Medusa heads. Take a break at the newly installed Cistern Cafe, in the corner under the stairs.

Don’t   : Underestimate how dark and damp it is down there. The walkways can be slippery, so watch your step.

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