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The columned splendour of Istanbul’s Basilica Cistern

Besides wowing tourists, this ancient water reservoir also hosts Sufi concerts and poetry readings

A column at the Basilica Cistern with an upside-down Medusa head.
A column at the Basilica Cistern with an upside-down Medusa head. (Photo: iStock)

Gingerly descending 52 steps, I enter a vast cavernous space, as magnificent as a cathedral. The space is cool, as though it were air-conditioned, and I can hear strains of soft music. Wooden floorboards creak under my feet. Orange spotlights glow in the inky darkness, casting shadows nearly as tall as the columns that stretch into the high ceiling.

The Basilica Cistern, also called the Sunken Palace, is one of nearly a hundred Byzantine cisterns that once existed below ancient Istanbul. The network was built to ensure that the city would have an adequate supply of water should it face drought or a prolonged siege. The largest among these, the Basilica Cistern, was constructed under a public square called the Stoa Basilica.

I only learn about this underground beauty from a local friend on my third visit to the city. Like me, many visitors to Istanbul walk near the Hagia Sophia museum and the busy Sultanahmet Square, unaware of this attraction just a few feet away.

It is said that more than 7,000 slaves were employed in the construction of the cistern commissioned by Roman emperor Justinian and built around the year 532. Meant to supply water to the Grand Palace, it was an engineering feat for its time, with its columns being made with materials recycled from old palaces across the kingdom. The cistern could hold 80 million litres of water, brought from a reservoir near the Black Sea, 20km away, via an aqueduct.

In the past, visitors to the cistern explored it on rowboats. Now, strolling on the wooden walkway, I can see carp darting through the water and the glint of coins thrown by tourists. Water drips from the ceiling, making tiny splashes.

Nine-metre-tall columns of granite and marble, in a medley of architectural styles ranging from Doric to Ionic and Corinthian, line the room. Scavenged from old pagan temples and the spoils of defeated cities, there are 336 in all, laid out in 12 rows. One of the iconic columns has mammoth Medusa heads positioned upside down near its base, so that they can’t look you in the eye (and turn you into stone, as the myth suggests). Another column, called the Peacock’s Eye or the Weeping Column, is carved with eyes that seem to drip tears. It is said to be a tribute to the many slaves who toiled and died here during the construction of the cistern.

After the Ottomans took over Istanbul, they devised systems that supplied running water. Over time, many of the Byzantine cisterns fell into disrepair, some were filled with rubbish, while yet others were converted into bazaars or storehouses. A Dutch researcher named Petrus Gyllius rediscovered the Basilica Cistern in 1545, when he visited the city and heard stories about people fishing in their basements and pulling water out in buckets.

The cistern was restored in the 1980s, dredging up the mud on the floor, building in lighting and the wooden walkway. After it was opened to visitors in 1987, it has also been used for Sufi concerts, poetry sessions and classical music shows owing to its unique acoustics.

Besides the Basilica Cistern, several other old cisterns have been restored. The Sultan Cistern is now a restaurant, while the 1,600-year-old Theodosius Cistern in the Cemberlitas neighbourhood opened to the public in 2018 after an eight-year restoration. In an ancient city like Istanbul, with many subterranean springs, mosques and tunnels that are completely unknown to tourists, uncovering the past continues to be a work in progress.

Kalpana Sunder is a Chennai-based freelance writer.

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