Once you live in a city for awhile, the things that typically draw the tourists become a little less of a personal draw. Yes, the Blue Mosque is a must-see, but it’s not a five-time or 10-time must-see. It’s not even the best of the big Mimar Sinan mosques (I’m sure that will be a later post).
My personal exception to the diminishing utility of major Sultanahmet sites is the Yerebatan Sarnici, or Basilica Cisterns. I drag all my visitors through, even though it is not covered by my hard-won MuzeKart.
The cisterns were built somewhere around 500AD, or somewhere around 200 years after the Hagia Sophia. During the Byzantine period, they supplied water for the palace that was brought down from the Belgrade Forest via a pretty impressive network of aqueducts.
After the conquest, the Ottomans used the cisterns as well, although apparently for a while they were completely forgotten: According to lore, people in the neighborhood found out that they had neato magic basements, with small holes that one could drop a fishing line down and actually catch fish from. Eventually a visitor to the area climbed down one of those small holes and realized that actually the houses were on top of a giant subterranean water storage chamber.
The cisterns today are just gorgeous – they were restored in the 1960s and the 1980s, and have been lit with dim, colored lights with ethereal classical music piped in. There are still shoals of fish busying themselves in the water. The columns used to build the cisterns were repurposed from other projects around 6th century Constantinople, so as a result there’s quite a variety. My favorite is one with little spirals all over it; it’s a greeny-blue color.
One of the big draws of the Basilica Cisterns is the Medusa heads. At the foot of two pillars in a back corner of the cistern are large marble Medusa heads. One is sideways, while the other is upside down. It’s pretty incredible that they’ve survived so long, and in such decent condition. No one really knows how they ended up shoring up columns in a cistern, but as this is Turkey there are dozens of theories to choose from.
I enjoy the mood of the Basilica Cisterns. In the summer, it’s a cool, welcome respite from the utter havoc that is Sultanahmet. It tends to be quieter than the other big tourist sites nearby (Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque), with fewer touts to boot. It’s a great place to chill mid-sightseeing, or to just stop by just because. The Yerebatan Sarnici is my Istanbul.
Yerebatan Caddesi 13
Admission TL 10 / TL 3 for Turkish students or those who speak enough Turkish to convince the ticket sellers that they’re Turkish students