Far below Yerebatan Street, down in the Basilica Cistern, hundreds of marble columns march off in the vaulted dimness, each one holding up its bricked arch and, above it, the pavement. They’ve been holding up the street and everything on it for 1500 years. At the base of one column is a massive upside-down marble face, a head of Medusa, sunken on her stone snakes in the coin-strewn shallow water. Moss greens her face like uplighting. Why is she here, and why is she upside down? It’s another Byzantine mystery.
THE WELL OF THE CISTERN
Huge, humped, immutable, Hagia Sophia has been there for fifteen centuries, anchoring the neighborhood which has settled haphazardly around it on this side of the hill where the Straits of the Bosphorus run into the Marmara Sea.
Across from Hagia Sophia, on the corner of Yerebatan Street and the tramline, is a tall pitted rock thing that looks like a giant barbecue chimney. It’s a well going down to the Basilica Cistern, a sixth-century underground reservoir built in 532 by Emperor Justinian.
There are many cisterns in Istanbul but this is the biggest ever found. Yerebatan Sarayi, or Sunken Palace, the cathedral-sized Cistern runs beneath the entire street and all the buildings, clear to the great dome of Hagia Sophia looming above the trees and tram lines like the top of a glacier.
Yerebatan Street is covered with buildings. All of it–hotels, restaurants, shops, machine-gun toting police, mosque, carpet salesmen, shills, postcard sellers, trolling taxis– is held up by the magnificently engineered masonry down in the dim green Cistern: 336 columns marching in perfect order off into the shadows, bloated carp gliding into the watery shadows, expanding rings from the continual dripping of water from the vaulted brickwork above. There is some evidence that the Cistern originated under the Emperor Constantine and was expanded under Justinian, but it is Justinian rules down here; the scale, grandeur and endurance all testify to that.
Sunken Palace: The Basilica Cistern: Next: FISHING IN THE BASEMENT