I walked down 55 stone steps, sensing dampness in the air when I reached the bottom and the Basilica cistern. The only sounds were whispers from tourists and the odd drip of water. A shop stand was in the far left corner and they beckoned me over.
For a small amount of Turkish lira, I could dress up as an Ottoman princess and go home with a photograph souvenir. The disapproving look on my face showed that I felt this trade to be rather tacky and unsuitable for a building that is nearly 1500 years old.
Also known as the Yerebatan Sarayi or Sunken Palace of Istanbul, the man-made platforms took me away from the entrance and further into the cistern.
To my left and right were tall columns; lit with floodlights while beneath me were fish, bigger than the size of my hand, following the path in the shallow waters below. Perhaps they have learned to associate humans with food.
Historians say that in the year 527, seven thousand slaves grafted to build the Basilica cistern covering 9800 square meters, with 336 columns and the capacity to hold 100,000 tons of water that made its way to the citizens of Constantinople.
Definitely impressive but as I have learned with historical structures in Turkey, the Ottoman empire had more interest in lathering themselves with riches and the cistern fell into a bad state, used only by locals who dipped buckets into wells to fetch water up with the occasional fish
In the 16th century, a Dutch traveller named P.Gyllius, spread the word of the Yerebatan Sarayi to the western world which perhaps convinced the Ottoman empire they had something worth saving. Restoration work over hundreds of years has ensured that it is now one of the historical marvels of Istanbul.
But did you know that Mark Twain, James Bond, and Medusa all have a connection to the Yerebatan Sarayi?
In one of the greatest books about travel “Innocents Abroad,” Mark Twain does not paint a pretty picture of the time he spent in Constantinople.
He describes the grand bazaar as “a monstrous hive of little shops” and the Hagia Sophia as “the rustiest old barn in heathendom”
He was delighted with the Yerebatan Sarayi though, calling it the Thousand and One Columns.
“You are forty feet underground, and in the midst of a perfect wilderness of tall, slender, granite columns, of Byzantine architecture. Stand where you would, or change your position as often as you pleased, you were always a centre from which radiated a dozen long archways and colonnades that lost themselves in distance and the sombre twilight of the place.”
The Heads of Medusa
Walk to the back of the Basilica cistern to find two columns held up by heads of Medusa. One lays upside down and the other lays on its side. No one is sure of the factual reason for this but one favoured suggestion is no one who looked at the heads would turn to stone.
The Basilica Cistern and James Bond
Much before my time, but the 1963 film from Russia with Love, shows James Bond sailing through the columns of the cistern to reach a secret door. There are no signs of amazement or appreciation that he was in a famous structure of Istanbul but then again, he did have naughty and devious spies to catch.
Readers Question: Have you been to the Basilica cistern (Yerebatan Sarayi) of Istanbul? Were you impressed as much as I was?
Readers Tip : The cistern is very close to the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque so you can see them all on the same day.