Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Cistern and Cruise

The ancient cisterns that support the palaces are way too cool.

When Byzantine emperors built something, they certainly did it properly! This extraordinary cistern, built by Justinian in 532, is a great place to while away half an hour, especially during summer when its cavernous depths stay wonderfully cool. Like most sites in İstanbul, the cistern has a colorful history.

Known in Byzantium as the Basilica Cistern because it lay underneath the Stoa Basilica, one of the great squares on the first hill, it was used to store water for the Great Palace and surrounding buildings. Eventually closed, it seemed to have been forgotten by the city authorities sometime before the Conquest. Scholar Petrus Gyllius, who was researching Byzantine antiquities in 1545 and was told by locals that they could obtain water by lowering buckets in their basement floors. Some were even catching fish this way. Intrigued, Gyllius explored the neighborhood and discovered a house through whose basement he accessed the cistern. Even after his discovery, the Ottomans (who referred to the cistern as Yerebatan Sarayı) didn't treat the underground palace with the respect it deserved and it became a dumping ground for all sorts of junk, as well as corpses. It has been restored at least three times.

The cistern is 65m wide and 143m long, and 336 columns arranged in 12 rows support its roof. It once held 80,000 cubic meters of water, pumped and delivered through nearly 20km of aqueducts.

Constructed using columns, capitals and plinths from ruined buildings, the cistern's symmetry and sheer grandeur of conception is quite extraordinary. Don't miss the two columns in the northwestern corner supported by upside-down Medusa heads, or the column towards the center featuring a teardrop design.

Walking on the raised wooden platforms, you'll feel water dripping from the vaulted ceiling and may catch a glimpse of ghostly carp patrolling the water. Lighting is atmospheric and the small cafe near the exit is certainly an unusual spot to enjoy a cup of tea.

Sea Cruise

I took a cruise around the Bosphorus that was really intriguing. The seas do not rise or have violent storms so the houses are built right up to the seawalls without any fears of flooding. Many nice homes line the seacoast.

It was intriguing to see the modern city in contrast to the ancient monuments, palaces, and mosques. The city is full of restaurants, nightclubs, parks, and entertainment venue. Neighborhood districts have their distinct charm and the Asian side is less developed but just as intriguing as the European side.

I met a Kiwi on the boat. He brought along a small guitar and he is one of the Maori traveling musicians who introduce the Hakka and other Maori music and movement to the world. He and his band are touring Europe for a whole year. He is from a village near Wellington. Ironically, I was wondering if Istanbul was one of the most interesting cities I’ve seen and I was trying to debate with myself whether Wellington was nicer. They are both top destinations.

I also chatted with some Canadians who were vacationing from work. They were lamenting that it has been a long time since a Canadian team won the Stanley Cup.

 Cemeteries are noticeable in parts of Istanbul. It reminded me that I seldom see a cemetery in Jordan. One’s connection with the past is important. Cemeteries are often places of beauty and are well-maintained and clean. It is always important to have memories of the dead with us in this life.


I navigated my way through forward-pushing vendors. One tourist police came to introduce himself to me to talk about how pushy they can be. Then he starts recommended places that I should see and he will take me there. He was just as forward as the vendors. However, he seemed to sincerely want to pass along good information to me. He loves Americans and America.

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