Anyone who has ever visited Istanbul has surely visited the Basilica Cistern, known in Turkish as the “Yerebatan Sarnıcı”. Located across the street and underground from the Hagia Sophia in the heart of what once was Constantinople – capital of the Roman Empire for one thousand years and before that it was the Greek colony of Byzantium – the Cistern is an architectural marvel completed by the Emperor Justinian the Great (though it was likely begun during the reign of his uncle, the Emperor Justin).
The cistern was built to hold water that might keep the city’s thirst quenched in the event of siege or drought – though it was one of many that littered the city it was far and away the most important. But to call it a reservoir is to do it a grave injustice. It is a work of grace and beauty, built underneath the city streets in the heart of Constantinople. To enter it is to enter a magical space, in some ways (to me at least) it feels as ethereal and transcendent as the grand basilica above. The roof that towers above is supported by 336 columns rising 30 plus feet into the air, reflected in the water that still partially fills the room. A number of those columns contain recycled elements, including masonry that the Romans recovered from the more ancient Greek city of Byzantium like the absolutely breathtaking Medusa heads that form the base of two columns (see picture to the right).
To walk into the Cistern is to step 2,000 years back in time to the last era of the Romans when they still possessed the technological expertise, capital, and desire to build truly monumental works. Imagine that this place (pictures below) was never built to be seen, to entertain visitors, to awe tourists – it was simply built to hold water! Could we build something so regal today even if we tried? Its hard to contemplate. One cannot look at such a thing and wonder about, and to be awed by, the civilization that was capable of creating it.
So, the news this week is that Turkey will embark upon an ambitious restoration of the Cistern (along with the Milion that rests above it – the mile-marker from which all distances in the Empire were measured since Old Rome was lost to the Goths). One cannot help but wish them well and hope that the restoration is done with tact.
For more on the restoration see here.