Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Drops of History - Basilica Cistern (Istanbul, Turkey)

When you can feel the dank walls of history literally dripping on you, it's a kind reminder that you're in a special place. Let's say 532 AD special.

Known as the largest surviving Byzantine cistern, this remarkable place was built using 336 separate columns. Bridges for tourists strategically weave through the columns, making for the utmost sensory appeal. As I overtly mentioned in my opening paragraph, the history drips on you. The air is an odd combination of cold, moist, and heavy. I suppose I remember the sensory details because this is not a place that cameras thrive. It's all in the physical experience, as the grainy photographs only give half the picture - pun, fully intended.

The cistern itself was built during the height of the Byzantine empire, under the rule of Emperor Justinian. The cistern was actually filled using an elaborate system (20 km) of aqueducts from the Black Sea. Apparently, it could store up 80,000 cubic litres of water. The goal was to provide water to the nearby Topkapi Palace.

Legend has it that the place was all but forgotten until the 16th century, when people began telling tales of being able to miraculously retrieve water from below their floorboards, and in some cases were even fishing (Many large koi fish can still be seen swimming the waters). The cistern only really became fit for the public in 1987, and now it's one of Istanbul's major tourist pulls. Not to mention, it's featured in the James Bond film From Russia with Love.

When I read Lars Brownworth's book "Lost to the West: The Forgotten Byzantine Empire That Rescued Western Civilization" while I lived in Korea, this is the sort of stuff that was floating through my brain. I, for the record, adored that book - perhaps it's a small reason as to why I find myself here now.

If the impressive feats of architecture and engineering aren't enough for you, beautiful displays of craftsmanship can be found everywhere, especially on the ceiling. What really draws people's attention, however, is the northwest corner of the cistern. The medusa column bases. Many theories exists in reference to them and why exactly they're there, but none are considered flawless, so perhaps it is the mystery itself which draws people in.

Istanbul is not a city without its challenges, of that I can confidently conclude after a month. Nothing is quite as straightforward as it seems, and nothing seems to come easily. But, the truth is that in Istanbul, it's worth it. I get to spend my weekends leaving the comfortable modernity that my neighbourhood, Şişli, offers and seemingly time travel back a few hundred or thousand years, depending on the area. What perhaps excites me most is the notion that boredom will never be something I have to confront here. Good or bad, everything here is worth writing about.

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