Istanbul’s Byzantium Heritage, the Basilica Cistern

As we were in a taxi on the way to the old town in Istanbul, our taxi driver got chatty, as many taxi drivers are wont to do.

And taxi drivers tend to be some of the best people to talk to when visiting a city, because they tend to give tourist an alternative view of the city that goes beyond guidebooks and vlogs, most of these conversations taking place despite linguistic differences. Humans have a powerful ability to speak with everything but their words, and to be perfectly understood by another.

We let out a ‘wow’ as the car drove across the Galata Bridge into Istanbul’s old town. In front of us was a massive dome structure and all the smaller historic buildings surrounding it. It was a site to behold.

Our driver let out a smile, as the ‘wows’ came out naturally and started to intensely tell us about the city – the walls along the coast of the old town were actual Roman/Ottoman era citadel walls; avoid buying anything from the Grand Bazaar everything is over priced there; only eat food from the Spice Bazaar its expensive but at least cheaper than the Grand Bazaar; and go visit the Yerebatan Sarnıcı.

The what?

The Yerebatan Sarnıcı is the Basilica Cistern built during the era of the Roman Emperor Justinian I, the same emperor who ordered the construction of the Hagia Sofia. The cistern gets its name Basilica however not because of the Hagia Sophia but because it is located underneath a public square on a hill (Istanbul is known as a city of seven hills, an important geographical marker that was previously used to give religious and politics significance to a city).

A cistern is a waterproof receptacle for holding liquids to catch an store rainwater. So its basically a sheltered reservoir or tank really. Storing water is not a new concept, the ancients during the neolithic area had already been doing so as a way to manage water in dry-land farming areas. Cisterns were built also as alternatives to wells when wells could not be dug deep enough. This massive cistern was able to store some 80,000 cubic metres of water.

There is a dark past to this cistern though, more than 7000 slaves were used to construct it, and many died in the process. Not that these slaves mattered – if lives of regular people today are defined by the jobs they do, live back in antiquity were even less valued – which is why we know who commissioned it but not who built it. All that recalls them, is a column with the Tear Eyes.

The water here was built for a purpose. It was not something that the plebians could use. this cistern was built to provide filtered water to the Roman/Byzantine Emperor who lived in the Great Palace of Constantinople as well as other important structures located on the hill. It continued to provide water to the royals of the Ottoman Empire after new masters came to rule the city.

Now, cisterns continue to be in use today. Present day cisterns tend to be used only for irrigation purposes in water-scarce land areas. It doesn’t always strike us as technology that continues to be used because in many parts of the world, turning on a tap pumps water right into your kitchen.

This cistern located underneath the grounds of Istanbul has little water in it, mostly just for show.

A show of what? A show of what greatness of a civilization and the feats of engineering once stood in this city. A display of the ingenuity of the people.

No wonder our taxi driver wanted us to see it.

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