Yerebatan Sarayi – The Basilica Cistern in Istanbul

Basilica Cistern (Recovered)

The echoing drip-drip-drip-drop of water falling into a shallow pool.  Voices, footsteps, and the kur-plunk of a fish randomly disturbing the water’s still surface.  This is the bombardment of sounds that greeted my ears as I carefully dodged a low hanging door lintel and stepped down the final steps into the Basilica Cistern.

Basilica Cistern (Recovered)

In preparing for my trip to Istanbul the Basilica Cistern was one of my absolute must-visit destinations.  I didn’t know much about it other than that it looked mystical.  A large underground “lake” buried deep beneath the streets of one of the world’s most influential and ancient major cities.  Cisterns in general have always fascinated me, at least the large ones that can be entered.  I anticipated that it would be interesting, but I didn’t know what to expect. I also had no clue how large the cistern was as most of the photos online are taken from one of two vantage points.  As a result, while I expected Yerebatan Sarayi to be large, the version of “large” I anticipated was small in comparison to the real deal.

Basilica Cistern (Recovered)

This particular cistern in its entirety is massive.  Ancient texts report that 7,000 slaves worked to build the cistern which dates back to the 6th century.  That manpower shows as the cistern covers a space of around 105,000 square feet  with a roof  that is supported by a whopping 336 marble columns.  The Basilica Cistern’s designers had a specific purpose in mind during construction, and the cistern fulfills that purpose beautifully with the capacity to store over 100,000 tons of water.  To put that into perspective a fully loaded 747 airplane typically weighs about 490 tons.  That puts the weight capacity of the cistern at around 204 fully loaded Boeing 747s!!!

Basilica Cistern (Recovered)

The cistern initially drew its water from an aqueduct constructed to connect the cistern with Belgrade Forest some 12 miles away. It was built by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian.  Up until 1985 when the cistern was renovated and the raised walkway was added, visitors would tour the cistern by boat, which I can only imagine added to the ambiance of the experience.  In its current form the water level is kept relatively low (at about 1-3 feet in depth) and the cistern can be toured by use of a series of raised walkways.  While not quite as magical as a wooden row boat, the walkways and current lighting showcase the cistern, its many columns, and its ceiling made out of a system of vaulted arches.

Medusa Head - Basilica Cistern

The two Medusa head columns located at the very back of the cistern are some of the Basilica’s oddities.  These two large-column bases are beautifully carved and believed to date back to the late Roman period.  Beyond that, they are largely a mystery.  As an added curiosity, both have been set strangely, with one installed upside down and the other upon its side.  Experts theorize that this was done out of superstition as a way to defend against the snake-haired monster’s power.  However, more logical theories also suggest they were just used as scrap stone and setup to be as stable as possible with little consideration for the carving that decorated them.  Unfortunately, it is very likely that we’ll never know the true reason.  One thing is for certain – of all the mythical creatures out there, Medusa is definitely one fell beast and I would hate to run into her in a place like Yerebatan Sarayi!

Quick tip: make sure that you don’t miss the final view of the arches (which also happens to be one of the best).  I almost walked right by it as I made my way towards the exit.  It is accessed off the final fork on the raised walkways and is located just before you reach the raised stage area and dead end into the small food shop.  It winds back in towards the center of the cistern along the back wall and offers a more peaceful view of the columns and vaulted ceilings.   

*I apologize for the low quality of the photos in this post. Unfortunately my photos from the cistern were destroyed in a SD card mishap.  The shots I’ve used here are stills taken from video footage I shot.

Hagia Sophia and The Sultan Ahmed “Blue” Mosque

Hagia Sofia at Night

Hagia Sophia

Every art and architecture student has studied the beauty and wonder of  Hagia Sophia. It is a premier example of Byzantine art and construction. This fortress-esque structure has stood as a testament to human ingenuity since 537 AD.  That’s not a typo.   This massive sprawling citadel to God is just under 1,500 years old and has played a pivotal roll in human architectural history.  Some reports suggest that it also held the title of largest cathedral in the world for nearly 1,000 years.  No small accomplishment.

Hagia Sofia in the Snow

Amazingly the entire structure was built in less than 10 years, reportedly by a work crew of some 10,000 people, by the decree of Justinian I of Constantinople. It was the third basilica to be built in the location and the largest of the three. Unfortunately, the structure was severely damaged less than 20 years after it was completed by a series of earthquakes which collapsed the main dome. Resiliently, the dome was re-built, re-structured and raised some 20+ feet. These enhancements were completed quickly and done by the year 562.

Hagia Sofia in the Snow

The church stood as a shining example of Christiandom until 1453 when the Ottoman empire conquered Constantinople. The church was immediately converted into a mosque, a process which resulted in the removal of most of the holy relics, altars, and bells. Interestingly, instead of removing the old Christian mosaics, the Ottomans decided to paint over them.  The interior was re-decorated to serve as a mosque and the building’s four large minarets were added.  The majority of the building’s interior (as seen today) dates back to this period, with the exception of several large christian mosaics which were recently uncovered.

Hagia Sophia (Recovered)

The building served as one of the largest and most impressive mosques in the Muslim world for the next several hundred years. The mosque’s design and appearance was mirrored in other Ottoman mosques and served as inspiration for Istanbul’s numerous structures. It served as the key model for the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, which is now commonly known and recognized as Istanbul’s Blue Mosque.  In an interesting turn of history, Hagia Sophia ceased to be a mosque in 1935 when the then newly elected President Ataturk decreed that it be converted into a museum.

Hagia Sofia in Istanbul

The interior of the structure is truly fascinating.  The sheer scale of the open space in the main area will leave you feeling tiny.  The mosaics are beautiful and reflect the periods in history during which they were created. The mixture of cultures, religions and periods in history is evident in all aspects of the structure creating an eclectic mixture that while somewhat cold, still manages to be very rich and engaging.   Stay tuned for video from inside Hagia Sophia in future posts.  Beyond that, you’ll just have to visit yourself!

Sultan Ahmed Mosque in Snow

Sultan Ahmed “the Blue” Mosque

The Blue Mosque was completed in 1616 and sits immediately opposite Hagia Sophia.  The mosque embodies the epitome of Byzantine-influenced Ottoman construction. It relies on heavy inspiration from Hagia Sophia, but the building’s lines and domes are enhanced while simultaneously integrating a series of six minarets into the original design.

Sultan Ahmed Mosque in Snow

From the start, the goal while creating the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, was to create one of the greatest mosques in the world.  The structure was built on a massive scale and can accommodate 10,000 people during prayer.  It was created to be a purely Muslim structure, in contrast with Hagia Sophia which had a mixed heritage.   It was also fairly controversial initially due to its 6 minarets, which was a violation of accepted policy at that point in time-typically all mosques outside Masjid al-Haram in Mecca were limited to four minarets.

Blue Mosque

Unlike Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque is still in active use and faithful are welcomed to attend for daily prayer.  However, don’t fret – the mosque remains open most of the day for tourists, who are welcome into the mosque and given free roam of just under half the ground floor.  If, that is, you’re willing to leave your shoes at the door and have made sure to dress appropriately.

Interior of the Blue Mosque

The mosque’s nickname comes from the beautiful blue tile work that decorates its interior. This is accentuated by more than 200 blue stained-glass windows.   The tiles and beautifully painted calligraphy work has made the Blue Mosque one of Istanbul’s leading tourist attractions.

Interior of the Blue Mosque

Every inch of the building’s interior is covered in rich, padded carpets, beautiful stained-glass windows, or intricately decorated Islamic decorations and calligraphic script. The amount of time and energy that went into these decorations is staggering and an amazing testament to the might, wealth, and glory of the Ottoman Empire at its peak.

Interior of the Blue Mosque

For people familiar with calligraphy, many of the tiles depict beautiful flowing script, which are verses from the Qur’an and were created by Seyyid Kasim Gubari – one of the greatest calligraphers in his era.

Sultan Ahmed Mosque in Snow

The interior of the Blue Mosque is absolutely gorgeous.  However, it is also slightly overwhelming making the structure feel somewhat smaller and significantly more cozy than Hagia Sophia.  If planning a visit to Istanbul, I highly suggest visiting both structures and dedicating ample time to each. While it is easy to assume that the two will be very similar, the reality is that the experience varies significantly from one to the other.  The Blue Mosque will awe you with its beauty, with its polished architecture and wonderful lighting.  Hagia Sophia will captivate you with its size, scale, and odd mixture of religious and cultural history.

Mosque in Istanbul

Other Mosques Abound

As a first-timer to Istanbul I expected that the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia would be the only two large religious structures in the city.  Especially after seeing the incredible size and scale of the structures it made it hard to imagine that the city could have ever supported a third, fourth, or fifth building of similar scale and scope.

Istanbul at Sunset

So, perhaps you can understand (and share) my surprise at discovering that Istanbul’s skyline is decorated by the impressive domes and needle-like forms of towering minarets from at least half a dozen large mosques.

Have you visited Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque?  What were your favorite parts?  What surprised you?

**Bonus – While visiting Hagia Sophia, there is a free (and separate) series of tombs which can be accessed from the external side of the building.  These serve as the eternal resting place for a number of the region’s influential rulers and religious figures, in addition to boasting their own wealth of beautiful tile and mural work.