It’s hard to believe now, but the Yerebatan Basilica Cistern, once the major water supply of Constantinople, was lost to Istanbul until the 16th century. As recorded by Ogier de Busbecq, a visitor to the city heard rumours of locals fishing from their basements and went to see. The visitor, French scholar Petrius Phyllius, found an underground cavern dating back to the 6th century, full of rubbish, detritus and corpses.
The first time I visited the cistern, I had a mammoth hangover. It was 1990 and just before the Gulf War started. I’d spent the previous night discussing the state of the world while drinking Black Sea brandy with other travellers. At £1 a bottle, we finished way more than one.
Undeterred I let the energy of Istanbul revive me and headed to the small ramshackle hut that served as an entrance to the cistern back then. Its modest appearance did nothing to prepare me for the eerie space below. 336 columns formed seemingly endless rows of stone, casting rippling shadows into a space that once held nearly 100,000 tons of water. Even though the water level was only a few inches and the space crowded with other people, the atmosphere was striking. There was no sound and light show then as is today, and in the silence I realised there was no echo. No sound at all.
I followed the mossy stone paths to the far walls and gazed upon the two snake-covered heads of Medusa, one laying sideways and the other upside down. In Greek mythology Medusa was one of three Gorgon monsters, and the only one who was human. She was killed by Perseus who cut off her head. No one’s certain where these heads came from and why they aren’t displayed upright, but one theory is that the Christians placed pagan heads upside down to affirm their own faith.
A visit to the Yerebatan Basilica Cistern should definitely be on your list of things to see when you come to Istanbul. It will never cease to astound.