No, I don’t mean that during my four days in Istanbul I delved into the Turkish mafia (which I know nothing about, but I’m sure there is one). By underworld I mean literally under the city. Whilst you’re in the Golden Horn visiting the Hagia Sophia and the Sultan Ahmet, take some time to check out the Basilica Cistern. If it weren’t for the line of tourists wrapping around the block, you’d miss it, as the entrance to this watery underworld is housed in a fairly unassuming brick building across the square from the main attractions.
Once you descend down the steps however, you enter a murky, eerie, cavernous expanse. Marble columns rise from the shallow waters, pools of soft yellow light guiding the way for tourist who traverse the wooden suspended walkways to the sound of dripping water dropping from the stone ceilings to the underground lake below. It is a watery cathedral hidden underneath one of Istanbul’s most famous squares.
The Basilica Cistern was built during the Byzantine Empire by Emperor Justinian (remember him from my post on the Hagia Sophia?) Its waters were fed via an aqueduct which were drawn from the Belgrade Forest, over 10 miles from the center of Constantinople. The cistern has the capacity to hold roughly 100,000 tons of water. Although the waters are quite shallow today, maybe knee deep in some parts, with very questionable looking fish swimming in it, you can see water marks on the ancient columns, indicating water levels a good 10 to 20 feet higher than they are today.
The vast majority of the 50 odd giant marble columns are smooth surfaced, except for one. The Hen’s Eye column is engraved with thousands of eyes, which at times appear to be weeping as dripping water from the ceiling pours down the column. The water has left its mark over the centuries, turning the column a medley of blue, green, and yellow hues. The “weeping” column is said to be a tribute to the slaves who died during the construction of the cistern. An estimated 7,000 slaves were involved in the construction.
There are two other columns in the cistern that are not quite like the others- the Medusa’s columns. In the back of the cistern, at the base of two of the columns, are two giant blocks of stone carved with Medusa’s face and head. One head is turned on its side and the other upside down- presumably to protect viewers from the famed stone-inducing stare of the Gorgon.
I really marveled at the sheer engineering feat of creating such an expansive underground cavern, below the city of ancient Constantinople. It felt creepy and out of a movie (which it is, several have been filmed there), but it was also ornate and beautiful. They took time to make a cistern, essentially modern day’s water tower, beautiful. It is so dark and gloomy, even with the contemporary lighting, that the photographs I took do not really do it justice. If you have time between the above ground sites, the Basilica Cistern is well worth the look.