In August, Istanbul is an oven. The temperatures hover right around ninety degrees, but the swampy humidity and sweaty crowds that mob the sun-drenched city make it seem far hotter. Any place that provides the tiniest bit of shade or breeze becomes a refuge from the heat, be that a marble mosque, a rooftop terrace of a café in Sultanahment, the shady avenues of Gülhane Park, or the air conditioned hallways of a museum. Istanbul’s best place, though, to beat the heat can’t be found in any of those places; it’s underneath them.
The Basilica Cistern (or in Turkish, Yerebatan Sarayı, which translates as “sunken palace”) was one of my favorite places in Istanbul. That ranking doesn’t just come from the cool relief it provided, though that was certainly part of it. As its Turkish name suggests, the cistern is completely underground. A solid layer of rock lies between you and the sun’s rays, and on a scorching August day, that’s automatically a victory.
Historically speaking, the Basilica Cistern is one of the oldest landmarks in Istanbul. It originally lay under the Stoa Basilica (Gee, wonder where the cistern got its name?) and was constructed during the reign of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I in the 6th century, when the city was known as Constantinople. With a capacity of about eighty thousand cubic meters of water, the cistern provided water, carried twenty kilometers from the Black Sea via aqueducts, to the Great Palace and other nearby buildings.
When the Byzantine emperors moved from the Grand Palace, the cistern was closed down and, by all accounts, forgotten. It wasn’t until 1545 that the cistern was rediscovered, when Ottoman residents of the area kept dipping buckets beneath their basement floors and hauling up full buckets of water (along with a fish or two). It wasn’t until the mid-1980s, though, that the cistern was cleaned of the garbage and other detritus (…like corpses; yes, really) that people had dumped into it, renovated, and reopened to the public.
Now, the cistern has one of the coolest (both literally and metaphorically) atmospheres of any place in the city. Cool water drips down from its cavernous, vaulted ceiling, and the 336 columns arranged into parallel rows provide eerie, shadowy symmetry. Schools of carp slip in and out of the darkness in the few feet of water that cover the floor, and raised walkways slick with water let you walk among the rows of columns. (Word to the wise: wear shoes with treads or be doomed to perilously slide your way around like yours truly did.)The cistern is a muted, serene remnant of the glory days of Constantinople. You’d never know that the modern world races on without you over your head, because aside from the walkways and lighting, it feels like it’s still the 6th century. (Well, at least if you put your back to the café and souvenir shop.)
In one of the back corners, another unique feature waits: two massive Medusa heads serve as support for two of the columns. In ancient mythology, Medusa was the prettiest of the Gorgon sisters, but was cursed by Athena after she slept with Poseidon, the god of the sea, in the wisdom goddess’s temple. Medusa’s new chthonic, serpentine hairdo had the uncontrollable ability of turning anyone who lay eyes her to stone. (Not exactly the best way to score a second date with a guy.)
In the Basilica Cistern, the two huge busts are turned, one upside down and one to the side, as that supposedly negates Medusa’s petrifying power. At least, that’s the way the story goes for the head flipped upside down. Some historians believe that the horizontally rotated bust was turned that way just because it fit as a base for that specific column’s height.
And I hope that whoever designed the lighting in the Basilica Cistern was paid a pretty penny, because it is simply amazing. Fiery orange lights illuminate the base of the columns, and the reflections on the water trail like molten copper through the darkness. There are no actual flames, but the soft, golden light that glows through the vast space makes it seem like fire burns on the water’s surface. If you emerge from the cistern without some seriously cool pictures, you’ll definitely be in the vast minority.