Basilica Cistern

Every building we visited in Istanbul was huge; every builder in history seemed to have a point to make.  His work would stretch higher into the sky, would occupy more space on the prime location, and would dominate the skyline, and everything would be built to last.

The underground cistern beside Hagia Sofia was built in the 6th century in the Byzantine era by Justinian as part of the water storages for the city.  The history says that, for the construction, they reused masonry and stones from older Roman structures.  This means that many of the pillars supporting the roof are capped with elaborately carved capitals, there are decorated columns amongst the plain ones, and then there are the Medusa heads.  Various stories have been told about these heads; that they are facing away from the main body of the cistern to ward off unwanted spirits, that they are upside down so as to minimise their power to turn a man to stone, or, my favourite, that the blocks were the right size to fit a gap at the bottom of a pillar and they were turned to the optimum position to fit.

The space is huge, as large as any cathedral above ground; the lighting adds to the feeling of great volume, both illuminating some parts and letting others, the further reaches, fade into shadow and darkness.  The water is shallow and occupied by a colony of fish; the bigger ones with an eye on the main chance are near the entrance, while the further you move into the cistern, the smaller the fish are…..

According to the literature, the cistern continued to supply water to the nearby Topkapi Palace into relatively modern times, an extraordinarily long useful life.

It seems now though, that nothing is built to last for a long time; there’s the excuse of technological change creating different imperatives, but sometimes it seems that not enough effort is put into revamping existing structures; the answer always seems to be to knock it down and start again.  It’s a very strange feeling to see buildings that I remember being built now being abandoned and demolished.  Most of it might be to do with the hideousness of much of what was built in that period, but surely not all of it?

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