Mysterious water underworld of past empires reopens in Istanbul

Saturday, July 30, 2022 23:23 MYT

ISTANBUL, July 30 — Justinian the Great would have been proud. The Basilica Cistern, which he built in what is now Istanbul as the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, has reopened after his five-year renovation that turned the reservoir into a breezy, cool haven of underground sound and light.

Built in 542 AD near the Hagia Sophia Mosque, it was then a cathedral. The cathedral was once part of a network of over 100 cisterns, begun by the Romans and completed by the Byzantines and Ottomans, that supplied water to the city and its palaces.

Known in Turkey as Yerebatan Sarnici (“Buried Underground Cistern”), it became famous on the silver screen when it appeared in a scene from the 1963 James Bond film From Russia With Love.

But fears that the cathedral could collapse if a slight quake hit Istanbul, the city had to partially close the site for restoration in 2017. did.

It has been completely closed since the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, allowing workers to strengthen and clean the 138-meter-by-65-meter water palace, said deputy head of the municipality’s heritage department. Aisen Kaya said.

A cornice of 336 columns supporting the subterranean ceiling was strung with iron bars and arranged in 28 rows by 12 rows.

Even the pink brick walls have been stripped of the less sophisticated renovations of the past.

“We brought the bricks up to date by scraping off the added layer of cement,” says Kaya. She pointed to her two pipes exposed in the latest construction. One brought water to the Hagia Sophia and her other led to the palace the Sultan stood before building her harem in Topkapi next door.

The Basilica Cistern could hold about 80,000 liters of water, which ran down an aqueduct from a mountain 19 kilometers north.

This feat helped save the Byzantines from the summer drought.

upside down medusa

The renovation also includes a lower footbridge over the water that brings tourists within half a meter of the water. And the lighting was improved, and the floor was visible for the first time.

Beyond structural changes, the basilica was imbued with a mystical, almost spiritual feeling, with colored lights that changed people’s perspectives and revealed new details.

The famous Medusa heads that adorn two of the corner pillars, according to legend, were carved upside down to avoid turning those who fix their gaze on stone to stone, but are now even more vivid and terrifying It looks like

At the heart of the 1,500-year-old structure is a triumph of art and technology at the time, with contemporary pieces inserted for special effect, such as a hand clasping from the water.

A translucent jellyfish artwork appears to dance between the pillars, illuminated by a rainbow of colors that gently illuminates the dark hall.

“I wanted a light installation that didn’t detract from the mystical atmosphere of this place,” said Kaya.

The line of tourists meandering towards the entrance of the reservoir under the scorching Istanbul sun is a testament to the success of the restoration.

“Absolutely unbelievable. I mean, totally unique,” said 40-year-old British visitor Nick Aratti, struggling to put his amazement into words.

“I’ve never seen a place like this before, and it will live with me for a very long time.” — ETX Studios Mysterious water underworld of past empires reopens in Istanbul

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