Yerebatan Basilica Cistern

Do you know how many columns there are?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.

Beware the wrath of Medusa.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.

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About Goreme1990

I’m Lisa Morrow, the person behind I was born in Sydney, Australia and grew up a leafy middle class North Shore suburb. After finishing high school I went to Sydney University but failed to find my niche. After working as a public servant, cleaner, sales assistant, waitress, bar maid and car counter, I went overseas. Once there I hitchhiked through the UK, travelled in Europe and arrived in Turkey just as the Gulf War was starting. My three months stay in the small central Anatolian village of Göreme changed my life. On my return to Australia I earned a BA Honours Degree in Sociology from Macquarie University. An academic career beckoned but the call to travel was louder. After several false starts I moved to Turkey and lived there for ten years. In 2017 I moved to Lisbon, Portugal, but continue to travel regularly to Istanbul. In addition to my blog I've written a travel narrative memoir called "Waiting for the Tulips to Bloom: Adrift in Istanbul" and two collections of essays, "Inside Out In Istanbul: Making Sense of the City" and "Exploring Turkish Landscapes: Crossing Inner Boundaries". I have a regular segment on San Francisco Turkish radio and in early 2017 I released an audio walking tour called "Stepping back through Chalcedon: Kadikoy Walk", through VoiceMap. In addition I write for various international and Australian magazines and websites, as well as for this blog. A full list of my published articles, with links, can be found on the Writing on Turkey and Writing Beyond Turkey pages.
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