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Istanbul IV: still waters run deep

This week’s dose of 2016 Constantinopolitan tourism features an unlikely attraction, the structure known as the basilica cistern. This is nothing more than a Byzantine cistern installed under the Emperor Justinian I to help ensure the city’s continued water supply in time of drought or siege. It was fed from kilometres away via aqueducts running into the city and kept full against emergency. So far, so mundane, but of course as we’ve seen Justinian I did very little by halves and so firstly, most obviously, it’s still there and maybe even functional, if anyone cared to fill it, and secondly, it’s really impressive, as even a first step down into its space reveals.

View from the entrance balcony down into the body of the cistern

View from the entrance balcony down into the body of the cistern

In fact this space is 140 meters long and 70 wide, and is held up by 336 9-meter columns, each more or less exactly 4 meters 90 centimetres from each other. It’s civil engineering on a positively imperial scale.

View from the platform below the entrance balcony to the basilica cistern, Istanbul

View from the platform below the balcony to the other end of the cistern

View down one of the diagonals in the basilica cistern, Istanbul

View down one of the diagonals

Nowadays, it is not kept full of water against drought. In fact, the last time I went it had been drained for maintenance, but on this first visit it was merely very slightly filled with water, to the general benefit of its local population.

Fish in the water in the basilica cistern, Istanbul

Fish in the water

I hope they were found somewhere else when it was drained, rather than just being eaten, but I fear otherwise. Anyway, despite the general impressiveness of this, it turns out that even here the Byzantine Empire didn’t completely mind cutting corners, or rather columns. A few of the columns are clearly from other structures, just having been the right size at the right time; but two in particular sit on large square bases that one can immediately see are older Roman…

Reused column base in the basilica cistern, Istanbul

… and turn out to be rather more than just that, because on their other faces…

Upturned Medusa's head reused as a column base in the basilica cistern, Istanbul

is the Medusa! Or at least, a Medusa, and indeed…

Overturned Medusa's head sculpture reused as a column base in the basilica cistern, Istanbul

… another one, thankfully already turned to stone so you don’t have to be. Was this deliberate disposal of pagan sculpture where no-one would see it again? From exactly how far did anyone ship these things, given Constantinople’s relatively recent conversion into a capital? Were these among Constantine I’s imperial trophy display in the Hippodrome, and Justinian I just got bored of them and consigned them to a watery underworld? If so, was that pragmatic or symbolic? And of course, we can answer none of these questions. This place is a good one to hide things.

Viw towards the entrance from the far end of the basilica cistern, Istanbul

Viw towards the entrance from the far end of the cistern

This may have been the single thing we went to in Istanbul that I enjoyed the most. It wasn’t the most impressive or most beautiful or most splendid, but its geometrical determination of monumental functionality, in a setting no-one much was supposed to see, has kept it in my top three of Istanbul sights nonetheless. It’s cheap and well worth an hour of your touristic time.


Normally I’d give an academic source for all this but in this case my entire source base is the local signage and an accompanying expert, so I have nothing to which I can point you. Just go and have a look!

One response to “Istanbul IV: still waters run deep

  1. Pingback: Istanbul V: Hidden Gold | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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