Our visit to the Basilica Cistern was a real surprise. We descended the long flight of stairs across the street from the Hagia Sophia expecting something touristy: a platform with a single photo opportunity where a huge crowd would take turns snapping away before exiting through the gift shop. Instead we entered a hushed, cathedral-like interior with a long, winding walkway that disappeared into the darkness of this vast space. The Basilica Cistern is a strange, grand piece of architecture. It seems unbelievable that it was designed for an unseen, utilitarian purpose. Built over fifteen hundred years ago under the heart of old Istanbul, the whole volume of the space was originally filled with water, a reservoir for citizens under Emperor Justinian. The columns and capitals vary in age, material and style, coming from many different old buildings and repurposed to support the cistern vault. We walked along the raised walkway, which loops through a space that originally held one hundred thousand tons of water, and has a footprint larger than that of the Hagia Sophia. Now there are just a few feet of water covering the floor and reflecting the arches. Schools of carp swim around the column bases, among them ghostly-gray old timers. Apparently, these fish eventually lose their pigmentation if they aren't exposed to sunlight. We walked far into the depths of the cistern where two colossal-size medusa heads, recycled by the builders, were used as base blocks to support columns. After the fall of Constantinople, knowledge of this cistern was lost. Ottomans living on the land above the cistern would unknowingly tap into its vaulted ceiling when digging wells for their gardens, accessing a miraculous supply of fresh water. Eventually the cistern was rediscovered and restored. It became a museum just twenty-five years ago.
Carp in the shallow water covering the cistern floor
One of the Medusa heads used as column base blocks
View back to the entrance
Shane in the Basilica Cistern