Basilica Cistern, Istanbul, Turkey
I couldn’t help it, you know. Think about Harry Potter, that is. The books are set in England – I shouldn’t really have been finding associations here in Turkey, in a city like Istanbul with its influences of Eastern Europe and Asia. But there was no denying it… it was all I could think about as I walked between the large stone columns.
You see, it was all about the name. I was under the streets of Istanbul, in an enormous dark and cavernous vault and I had flashes in my mind of a snake. A large snake.
Do you remember the enormous creature that is released in The Chamber of Secrets? No? That’s fine. I’ll remind you quickly. It is a huge serpent, with a mouth large enough for a man (or a boy wizard), which emerges from a hole in an underground labyrinth and slithers through tunnels and around columns, splashing in the shallow water, trying to kill the intruder. It’s called a Basilisk.
And so, there I was, in an underground labyrinth in Turkey with tunnels and columns and shallow water. And what was this cistern called? The Basilica Cistern. Does that word sound anything like a killer snake to you? Yep.
So that’s what I thought about a lot while I was underground. The other main thing which kept occurring to me was how amazing the place looked.
The Basilica Cistern was built in the 6th century by about seven thousands slaves, according to the best evidence. It is 138 metres long and 64 metres wide and has a ceiling that is supported by 336 marble columns that are each about nine metres tall.
The whole thing was essentially a reservoir and filtration system for various palaces over the centuries. The water came from a source almost 20 kilometres away, along a series of aqueducts. Although visiting it today shows only a small amount of water underneath the raised pathways, back in the days when Istanbul was Constantinople, much more of the cistern would have been used for water storage.
In the far corner, a long walk from the stone steps entrance, is one of the highlights – Medusa! Well, her head carved into the base of two of the columns, at least. There’s no definite answer as to why they’re not the right way up but historians do agree that they were intentionally placed that way.
After the oppressive heat above the ground, it was nice to be down in the cool and dark vault. The only light was from the illumination of the columns, which glow like ancient firesticks. It’s a fascinating part of the city – hidden away from obvious sight but worth hunting out during any visit.
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