Below the streets of Istanbul, beside the famous mosque Aya Sophia, is an underground tank, called the Basilica Cistern or the Turkish name, “Yerebatan Sarnici” meaning “Underground Palace”. It was constructed in the 6th century during the reign of Emperor Justinianus.
The cistern is supported by 336, 9-meter tall marble columns. Istanbul used the cistern to store as much as 100,000 tones of water. They most likely used the Roman aqueduct, as well as newer constructed aqueducts to transport the water the 19 kilometers from the Belgrad forest to the cistern.
In fact, the cistern is featured in the James Bond movie “From Russia with Love”. When the movie was shot the cistern was not open to the public. However on September 9, 1987 after renovations, removal of 50,000 tons of mud and the construction of a wooden walkway for vistors to make their way through the cistern, it was open to all local and foreign visitors. Today there is even a small restaurant in the cistern with a small circular stage. It could be quite the wedding venue!
I had no idea what to expect upon entering the cistern. Even though Chris and I had just watched “From Russia with Love” about three months before, I had not made the connection. After paying 10 New Turkish Lira each (about $7.40 Canadian) we curved around the corner and found ourselves at the top of stairs overlooking a dark, open underground space. Columns reached off into the distance.
It isn’t very often you get to stand eye level with the Corinthian and Ionic tops of columns, but there I was parallel with them. I stood for a second, my mouth hanging open in awe, and then I descended the very staircase Chris believes was used for the shot in the James Bond movie.
You look out into the darkness, the columns highlighted with reddish-orange light shining on each of their bases. A sweet, but sorrow-felt music drifts in the air. The humidity softly touches your face. A drop of water pats onto your head. Fish, from 6 inches to 1.5 feet slowly undulate in the shallow water and you think to yourself, “Do they expect me to feed them? Do people feed them? Or, is that fish just taking a break?”
Ripples expand away from the columns, near and far from you.They are from the drops of water falling from the ceiling. Strangely, the ceiling looks dry. You find a calm area and notice the reflection of the columns in the shallow water.
Two columns have Medusa heads for bases. One is upside down and one is on its right cheek. They would have been underwater when the cistern was in use and when they were placed there, so Chris and I hypothesize, they were put there for practical, functional reasons. They needed something to support the pillars, they had the two heads and they fit, so they used them. At the same time, it is possible the the workers did not put them upright because of superstition. Nonetheless, who wants to look Medusa in the face anyways?
The cistern is well worth the 10 New Turkish Lira. If you get the chance to visit, take your time and walk through the columns slowly and try to use all your senses in your observation of its uniqueness.