The Basilica Cistern in Istanbul is almost 1500 years old. I’m writing this in Atlanta, a city that’s barely 180 years old. Time will destroy you if you think about it too much.
Istanbul is a palimpsest of a city, Turkish on top of Ottoman on top of Byzantine on top of Roman on top of the little-known culture that came before. Its most famous mosque was originally a church, and although it’s been a mosque for almost 600 years, it was a church for almost a thousand. It’s in Europe, it’s in Asia, and for millennia it’s been the entry point from one continent to the other. Perhaps no city in the world summarizes the fractious nature of human history and the commingling of cultures and religions better than Istanbul—a city that’s had three very famous names during its existence, all of which are awesome.
A notable part of the city’s Roman and Byzantine heritage lies underground, beneath the site of a long-gone basilica and near the Hagia Sophia and Topkapi Palace. One of hundreds of water storage chambers built beneath the city, the Basilica Cistern was constructed in 532 AD under the reign of Justinian I; today it’s a beautiful and quasi-mystical tourist site. It reopened this past weekend after a lengthy renovation, and combines a historical fascination for the past with an almost otherworldly atmosphere. If you’re ever in Istanbul, you need to check it out.
When full the cistern can hold millions of cubic feet of water. For decades, though, it’s been largely drained, with a thin layer of water maintained to evoke its original purpose. Over 300 marble columns are spaced out throughout the underground cavern, most with the distinctive capitals of the Corinthian and Ionic styles. Between the cistern’s huge size, the rows of looming columns, and the unnatural blue-green glow of the water, you might feel transported to the past—and not necessarily our human past, but that of some ancient alien culture.
The most notable columns feature unique engravings and pedestals, including two that sit atop Medusa heads repurposed from elsewhere. One of the heads sits sideways beneath its column, while the other is upside down. If there was any special meaning to either the use of the heads or their unusual placement, it’s long been forgotten, although tour guides will tell you they’re upside down and sideways to protect against the monster’s petrifying stare. Elsewhere a column is covered in carvings of a hen’s eye and tears, perhaps to memorialize the many slaves who died during the cistern’s construction.
A network of platforms provide a walking tour throughout the cistern, letting you get a close view at many of the columns, including both Medusa heads. Modern sculptures are also found throughout; one piece features a group of jellyfish floating above the water, while another sees a shambling, corpse-like figure rise from the cistern’s floor. Part of me feels like these slightly distract from the ancient beauty that surrounds them, but then they also lend the cistern much of its otherworldly splendor, along with the lighting that gives the water its eerie glimmer. It also reminds us that although we might have come underground to view something almost unspeakably old, it’s still a living space, as much a part of today as it was the 6th century. The contrast between ancient environs and contemporary art also nudges us into viewing this relatively mundane structure—it’s a public works project, the ancient equivalent of a city reservoir—as not just a remnant of history but a work of art in its own right.
Until the mid 1980s you couldn’t walk through the Basilica Cistern. You had to drift among its columns in a boat. That must have been even more magical and transportive than what I saw earlier this week. I’m sure bringing the boats back would drastically reduce the amount of people who could visit each day, but it also seems like it would enhance an already amazing experience.
Given its age and its almost unmatched importance to world history, there’s obviously a tremendous amount to see and do in Istanbul. Every visitor should make time to head underground and see the Basilica Cistern in person, though. It’s a powerful display of a past that both was and never fully was, a collision of the real and unreal almost as dazzling as Istanbul itself.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s on Twitter @grmartin, and he documents his travels on Instagram @garrett_martin_does_stuff.