“Go there, it’s not far… You’ll need to go straight.”
The seller of corn and roasted chestnuts at Sultanahmet Square swings his arms and discursively tries to explain the way, pointing first at the Hagia Sophia, and then at another old sight, the small brick tower behind his back. Then he gives it up and smiles widely. “Where are you from?”
“This guy is from America, and I’m from Ukraine,” I repeat this cliche in English as I recall a quote from The Little Prince saying that adults like numbers very much and never ask about the most important things. Everything changes when you travel – nobody is interested in your age, work, or even name. Where are you from? and Do you like being here? are the only two questions that we hear during the entire week.
“Ukraine, huh?” the man easily slips into speaking Russian. “Fifty meters behind this Hagia Sophia, that’s the Topkapi Palace. And if you go fifty meters past that tower behind my back, that’s where you’ll find the Basilica Cistern.”
“That’s it?” While I look around trying to understand how this is possible (everything appeared to be located at arm’s reach), Chris asks the seller a question, “And where are you from?”
“I am Uzbek,” the man smiles proudly and passes me a hot ear of corn, making me wonder again how my boyfriend had noticed something that missed my attention. It seems that eating corn at Sultanahmet Square is a separate sight. Tourists sit on dozens of benches, talking passionately, eating corn, and look at the greenery, the fountain, and two of the most famous mosques of the largest city in Turkey, facing each other, separated only by a small garden.
The corn is delicious, but quite ordinary; I ate similar ones during my childhood. After that brief rest, we get up and head towards the Cistern.
If you do not know where the Basilica Cistern is located, you may easily miss one of the most important sights of the old Constantinople. The only thing advertising that something interesting might be happening in this small building is the long queue at the entrance where we had to spend about ten minutes. During this time, Chris had already found an old couple from New York among these people and started easy conversation with them. I almost did not interfere, only smiled politely and wondered about how many tourists from all over the world this huge city would welcome.
I advise you to visit all the places for tourists during working hours – queues will be smaller then. On Tuesday afternoon, we had to wait only ten minutes; returning on Thursday, which happened to be the national holiday “Republic Day,” the queue appeared to be four times longer.
Just like many other sights in Istanbul, the Basilica Cistern keeps a mark of time – its construction was finished in the year 532 under the rule of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I “the Great,” and for many years it was used as one of the largest water reservoirs at the empire’s capital. Basilica Cistern is the most common English name among tourists, because long before the huge reservoir full of water appeared, there had been a basilica at this place. However, in Turkish, more often the original names Yerebatan Sarnıcı “Sunken Cistern” or Yerebatan Sarayı “Sunken Palace” are used for the reservoir.
In total, 336 marble columns are there, each 9 meters high. The distance between them is 5 meters, and they stand in 12 rows of 28 columns each. Most of them were brought in during the construction process from different temples, which is why they are different in shapes and marble types. According to estimates, the Basilica Cistern can hold 80,000 m2 (2,800,000 ft2) of water.
For many years, the water reservoir served the needs of the sultan’s palace and other inhabitants who lived nearby, but as the Ottoman Empire grew, it started to be used less and less, eventually delivering water only to the newly built Topkapi Palace. Years after that, water pipelines straight to the new residence of the rulers became preferable, and the Cistern all but became forgotten.
Interestingly, the European natural scientist, Petrus Gyllius, reminded people of this remarkable construction. The scientist found the entrance to the chamber, floated across it on a boat, and measured the water reservoir. Then, he wrote about this discovery in his book, helping to attract tourists from all over Europe to the Basilica Cistern.
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Walking down the stone stairs, we did not know what to expect, but the underground palace that spread out in front of us was better than anything my imagination could conjure. Calm music played, while the glow of lanterns illuminating the hundreds of columns only intensified its mysteriousness. Even the multiple tourists walking along the narrow pathways which wind through the columns didn’t break the mystique of the Basilica Cistern. It is one of those places where you do not want to speak out loud or laugh – not because it is forbidden, but because it seems you have entered an ancient temple or accidentally crossed the line into a parallel reality so different from that Istanbul just above.
For many, the favorite of the water reservoir itself are the “Medusa Heads,” two columns with carved heads of Medusa at their pedestal, the same Medusa who, according to ancient Greek mythology, could turn any creature into stone and who was later beheaded by Perseus.
One head is turned to its side, at 90 degrees, completely upside-down at 180 degrees, both looking at tourists with arrogance, even from such awkward positions. People say that both heads were placed their respective ways on purpose, so that no one would be harmed by the Gorgon’s magical ability.
However attention-grabbing these heads may be, tourists soon are attracted by another thing – the goldfish that freely swim in the shallow water below. As in many other touristic places, there is a tradition in the Basilica Cistern to throw a coin into water for your wish to come true, but here it is more like entertainment: dozens of fish attack each coin, hoping it would be something edible, and this seems to (trust me) attract people from all over the world as much or more than the two stone heads.
Our wishes soon went sour; I was so attracted by the fish fight that I forgot why I threw the coin, and Chris used his one only to hit a fish in the head. That’s why if fortune will bring us back to Turkey’s largest city, we will get back to finish what we had started and enjoy the unique atmosphere of this place again.
If you visit Istanbul, go and see the Basilica Cistern; You will see the city and its history from a completely new side. It’s worth it, I assure you. And if you get lost at Sultanahmet Square, just ask for advice from any seller of corn or chestnuts – they will be glad to help you.
Alemdar Mahallesi, Yerebatan Caddesi,
Working hours: 9:00 – 18:30 in summer; from 9:00 till 17:30 in winter. Museum is open 7 days a week but on the 1st of January and every bank holiday it is open from 13:00.
Phone: 0 212 512 15 70
Cost: 20 TRY (about $6.88 USD, €6.25, or £4.84 as of March 2016).
Official website: yerebatan.com
This article was originally written by me in Russian for our Russian-language sister site Vezdebrod. It was translated into English by the indispensable Marina Simochkina.