During our visit to Istanbul Lady Tiger Lilly and I took a tour of the Basilica Cistern. This marvel of ancient engineering was constructed during the 3rd and 4th centuries by the Emperor Constantine and rebuilt and enlarged by the Emperor Justinian to house the city’s water supply. Now drained of all but a few feet of water, visitors can descend in to the cavernous depths to admire its construction.
As we made our way down the steps, into the Basilica we were met with an awe inspiring vista, row after row of columns supports a vast brickwork ceiling. Open to the public since 1987 the interior is illuminated to accentuate the atmospheric space.
Whilst we may think of recycling as a relatively modern concept, the reality is the reclamation and reuse of materials is a practice as old as time. The Basilica cistern is a wonderful example of this. Conquered lands and peoples ‘donated’ materials to its construction. The practice, known as ‘spoliation’ easily ensured the cathedral sized construction had the 336 columns needed to support the Structures integrity and securely hold an approximate 80,000 cubic metres of water.
Visitors mingle freely around a network of raised walkways, beneath them in a few feet of water; fish lazily swim, free from predators.
The columns vary in design from the plain and functional to the highly ornate. Many were previously situated in temples or palaces, explaining their rich decoration.
The columns are not the only stone work recycled in this way. In a far corner two stone blocks carved with images of Medusa, support the columns and whilst the builders saw fit to use the Roman relics as little more than a foundation stone, it’s possible they were wary of legends and superstitions. One of the carved heads is upside down, whilst the other lies on its side. Averting the power of the gorgons gaze?
You may have glimpsed the Basilica in the movies, with both, From Russia with love and The International setting scenes in its subterranean splendour. Facts also blend with fiction in Clive Cussler’s 2010 Dirk Pitt Adventures, Crescent Dawn and in Dan Browns, Inferno. The Basilica being the setting for the books climax.
The Ladies loved our ancient underground exploration, it’s well worth visiting when in Istanbul. It can be rather cool below ground so don’t forget a jacket, even on the hottest of days.
- Lady Sky