Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Istanbul 2014 - Yerebatan Sarnici @ Basilica Cistern

Date of visit: 6th April 2014
Plaque on the entrance of Yerebatan Sarnici

When the detailed itinerary was prepared, I was overly excited to include Yerebatan Sirkeci in our place of interest (POI). It felt like I was given a second chance to revisit some of the places that was left out 10 years ago. In addition, I have to see a Medusa head in the basilica cistern with my own eye, after watching so much movies about it plus so much reading and search on myth and folktale.

As usual, quite a long queue

Nominal entrance fee is to be paid for the visit

The Basilica Cistern is called Yerebatan Sarnıcı meaning "Sunken Cistern"). It is the largest of several hundred ancient cisterns that lie beneath the city of Istanbul. The cistern, located 150 m (a very short walking distance, crossing a traffic light) southwest of the Hagia Sophia was built in the 6th century during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian.

The name of this subterranean structure derives from a large public square on the First Hill of Constantinople, the Stoa Basilica, beneath which it was originally constructed. Before being converted to a cistern, a great Basilica stood in its place, built between the 3rd and 4th centuries during the Early Roman Age as a commercial, legal and artistic centre. The basilica was reconstructed by Illus after a fire in 476.

Ancient texts indicated that the basilica contained gardens, surrounded by a colonnade facing the Hagia Sophia. According to ancient historians, Emperor Constantine built a structure that was later rebuilt and enlarged by Emperor Justinian after the Nika riots of 532 (in similar time that the Hagia Sophia was rebuilt), which devastated the city. Historical texts claim that 7,000 slaves were involved in the construction of the cistern.

The enlarged cistern provided a water filtration system for the Great Palace of Constantinople and other buildings on the First Hill. It continued to provide water to the Topkapi Palace after the Ottoman conquest in 1453 and into modern times.

Fish breeding freely

This cathedral-size cistern is an underground chamber approximately 138 metres by 64.6 metres (9,800 square metres in area), capable of holding 80,000 cubic metres of water. The ceiling is supported by a forest of 336 marble columns, each of 9 metres high, arranged in 12 rows of 28 columns each spaced 4.9 metres apart. The capitals of the columns are mainly Ionic and Corinthian styles, with the exception of a few Doric style without engravings. 1 of the columns is engraved with raised pictures of a Hen's Eye, slanted braches, and tears. This column resembles the columns of the Triumphal Arch of Theodosius I from the 4th century (AD 379-395), erected in the 'Forum Tauri' Square. Ancient texts suggest that the tears on the column pay tribute to the hundreds of slaves who died during the construction of the Basilica Cistern. The majority of the columns in the cistern appear to have been recycled from the ruins of older buildings (a process called 'spoliation'), likely brought to Constantinople from various parts of the empire, together with those that were used in the construction of Hagia Sophia. They are carved and engraved out of various types of marble and granite.

Forest of columns

"Peacock-eyed" column among the forest of colums
Fifty-two stone steps descend into the entrance of the cistern. The cistern is surrounded by a firebrick wall with a thickness of 4 metres and coated with a waterproofing mortar. The Basilica Cistern's water came from the Egrikapı Water Distribution Center in the Belgrade Forest, which lie 19 kilometres north of the city. It traveled through the 971 metres long Valens Aqueduct, and the 115.45 metres long Maglova Aqueduct, which was built by the Emperor Justinian.

The cistern has the capacity to store 100,000 tons of water, despite being virtually empty today with only a few feet of water lining the bottom. The weight of the cistern lies on the columns by means of the cross-shaped vaults and round arches of its roof, noticeable in the above photo.

Please take note that "YOU" are not supposed to touch the column. I did. I wronged.

The Basilica Cistern has undergone several restorations since its foundation. The first of the repairs were carried out twice during the Ottoman State in the 18th century during the reign of Ahmed III in 1723 by the architect Muhammad Agha of Kayseri. The second major repair was completed during the 19th century during the reign of Sultan Abdulhamid II (1876–1909). Cracks to masonry and damaged columns were repaired in 1968, with additional restoration in 1985 by the Istanbul Metropolitan Museum. During the 1985 restoration, 50,000 tons of mud were removed from the cisterns, and platforms built throughout to replace the boats once used to tour the cistern. The cistern was opened to the public in its current condition on 9 September 1987. In May 1994, the cistern underwent additional cleaning.

Another long queue for a picture with Medussa :(
Finally, a photo of me and Medussa, mission accomplished :)

Located in the northwest corner of the cistern, the bases of two columns reuse blocks carved with the visage of Medusa. The origin of the two heads is unknown, though it is thought that the heads were brought to the cistern after being removed from a building of the late Roman period. There is no written evidence that suggests they were used as column pedestals previously. Tradition has it that the blocks are oriented sideways and inverted in order to negate the power of the Gorgons' gaze (old ancient beliefs before the arrival of Holy Books), however it is widely thought that one was placed sideways only to be the proper size to support the column. The upside down Medusa was placed that way specifically because she would be the same height right side up (the same old ancient pagan beliefs).

The cistern with its inverted Medusa pillar was used prominently in the climax of the new Dan Brown novel “Inferno” featuring Robert Langdon, where the antagonist planned to make his attack. I have not read the novel but according to Samantha (my former office colleague who has finished reading it), Hagia Sophia building was also in the feature of Dan Brown's novel.

Please take note that the best camera to use inside the cistern is your smart phone. Most of the photos shared in this entry were snapped from my IPhone 5. Thank you Apple! To end this entry, I'm sharing herewith more of the photos with Medussa head (only 2 exist in the cistern) to satisfy my wishes. 

Notes: Research from Wikipedia website.

Post a Comment