To Fetch a Pail of Byzantine Water…Woolx In Istanbul


My most exquisite guide and the cistern

My most exquisite guide and the cistern

            The line to get in is long but at least it is moving, a determined stretch of curious winter-clothed tourists along a solid, tall wall covered by yellow-beige plaster.  Voices ebb and flow in various languages from the patient crowd, their banter competing with the street cacophony of cars, vendors, and the occasional tram rumbling by. 

This is the line for the Cistern of Constantinople, better known as the Basilica Cistern.  It was built during the reign of Justinian I and his actress wife, Theodora, the Queen Theodora that many argue was the power behind Justin.  The cistern lies in the former palace district of the Old City.  Here the senate met, arguments were made, and laws were passed.  More than this, however, the palace district also included the well-known Hagia Sophia, a stupendous eastern orthodox church (dating to 537) boasting the second largest dome in the world.

One would think that the wellspring of law and religion would suffice in defining a capital city.  However, the Romans should never be underestimated.  Adjacent to the palace, on the grounds of the present day Blue Mosque, lies the hippodrome track. This racetrack was the focal point of a highly sports-oriented society.  Popular teams were formed, bets were made, and politics often defined in who supported a specific racing team.  The roaring crowds that once cheered chariot drivers competing for gold prizes have fallen silent to history in this great open space, leaving only a huge flat field of cold paving stones and two obelisks .  One of these is an outright theft from Egypt, taken directly from the Temple of Karnak by Theodosius (empires seem to have a knack for stealing things, no matter the era).

The Walled Obelisk. (Image Source Wikipedia)

The Walled Obelisk.
(Image Source Wikipedia)

The second is the “Walled Obelisk,” built in the tenth century by Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus.  Though erosion has taken its toll, the monument remains defiant as it competes for attention with the looted stone from Karnak.

Back at the Basilica Cistern, we’ve made our way in.  We negotiate the stone steps, dropping deep below the streets of Istanbul.  Humid air rushes up as we descend.  Inside the cistern a hundred tall columns rise out of a vast pool of water, supporting vaulted brick ceilings above.  It is as if a vast roman temple has been built underground.  We pause, taking in the immensity of the place.  Picture taking is forbidden, the sign says.  In spite of this, camera flashes from various points illuminate the softly lit cavern.  We succumb to the urge as well as we traverse walkways that extend deep into the cistern, like long fingers prying into the artistry of ancients who never imagined this crude commercial use of their water works.

Later, back on the street, we’re glad to have our Woolx.  It’s a chilly January here in the old Byzantine capital.   Islam overcame Byzantium in 1453, its mark in great evidence as the call to noon prayer emanates from the Blue Mosque, with loudspeakers mounted on its four minarets. The mellifluous voice of the muezzin echoes up and down the open spaces and back alleys of this hilltop.  While others scurry to prayer we’ll scout the streets a bit more, seeking out the perfect teahouse for an exotic warm-up.