23 May 2014

Great Buildings: The Basilica Cistern, Istanbul

Medusa watches over sunken watery palace in the heart of Constantinople

Wandering around the heart of ancient Constantinople a couple of years back, I stumbled on the Basilica Cisterns, tucked away deep inside the First Hill. Originally a palace that was destroyed in the sixth century, the complex was converted into a giant cistern that served first the Byzantines, and then the Topkapi Palace of the Ottomans. 

It's colossal - big enough to hold 100,000 tons of water - but somehow intimate, hundreds of Ionic and Corinthian pillars stretching away into the dimness like a limestone grove. Tourists whisper, smartphones are out of reach, and there is always the sense of something ancient in the far corner, watching and waiting... The water is deep enough to provide a home to a tribe of carp, but shallow enough to see the bricks the Romans laid, mortared and waterproofed. It covers over the footprints of the hundreds of slaves who died building the cistern.

It was all strangely familiar, perhaps because it was used to film a showdown in James Bond's From Russia With Love.

Just when you get used to the beauty, darkness and peace of the place, you're confronted by a Gorgon. Two Medusa heads, upside down, stare at you, threatening to fuse you to the stone walls. Historians appear to be unsure as to exactly why they are there, in that configuration. 

The sense of menace is rooted in history, too. According to Atlas Obscura, "a Frenchman visiting Constantinople in the 1500s heard stories of locals drawing up fresh water and even fishing from holes in their cellars..." He investigated and discovered the giant cisterns and their native fish. A thousand years earlier, the Nika Revolt (a riot following a chariot race) had burned down much of the city, with 30,000 people being killed by the Emperor Justinian's troops - this was the end of the palace that later become the Basilica Cistern.

Rivers of blood were shed over Constantinople, yet the water in the cistern is a clear and calm witness to centuries struggle. Go visit!
Piers Alexander's novel of the Glorious Revolution, The Bitter Trade, is now available as an ebook and paperback (preorder )