Rainy Byzantine Sunday


On this, the rainiest of Sundays, I decided to take a trip to another 'must-see' site in Istanbul. A place filled with water, with water dripping from the ceilings, in fact: the Basilica Cistern. Kiddy corner from the Hagia Sophia,  the Cisterns were built in the 6th century, when Constantinople was the capital of the Byzantine Empire. It served as a water filtration system for palaces in the First Hill (now Sultanhamet), and channeled water from Belgrade Forest, via an aqueduct.
The vaulted ceilings of the Basilica Cistern
Walking down to the Cisterns (if you can ignore the new age pan pipe music blasting from speakers throughout and the screaming school groups), is like being transported to another world. A narrow stairway opens up into a spacious and chilly underground room, with slick, wet floors. Hundreds of illuminated columns hold up the lofty ceiling, casting reflections in the water, like floating corridors. It feels like a cathedral, with its vaulted ceilings, the meditative stillness and strength of the enduring pillars, the calming effect of the dripping water, and the dimly lit nooks and pathways.

Medusa Head- Sculpture at the bottom of a column
Upside Down Medusa Head


Pillar with Crying Eyes
The Basilica Cistern was built by slaves- 7,000, and a sole column decorated with tears, commemorates many of their deaths in building it. It is humbling to think that people lost their lives, creating this space. At the back of the Cisterns, are two column pedestals, carved in the likeness of Medusa. One is turned sideways and the other is upside down, giving a very strange effect. One theory is that they were placed this way, so as to neutralize the petrifying gaze, another that this merely served the practical purpose of creating a pedestal that was the right size (although this seems strange, because upside down or right side up, the statue would have the same dimensions). The Cisterns themselves are thought to be a collage of columns from older buildings, explaining why some are Doric, some Corynthian, and others Ionic (though I didn't see any of those).

View of the cathedral-like space of the Basilica Cistern



The amazing thing about the Cisterns is that when they stopped being used by the Ottoman Empire, people, who lived in the vicinity still used them to draw water from and even to fish from the basements of their homes. There was no wide knowledge of these cisterns, until the mid 16th century.  There are still tons of fish, including gigantic carp, in the underwater pools.

So many fish swimming around!
After visiting the Cisterns, finding it only wetter outside, I stopped in Cafe Lokum, a nearby coffee shop, to get dry. I sparked a conversation with an English speaker sitting nearby, who happened to be a set designer for the Ghost Rider II, the upcoming Nicholas Cage movie, partially filmed in Capadoccia (where I'll be going in mid- February!). The waiter showed us a tabloid photo of Nicholas Cage in the Turkish press, and asked my new friend to send his regards. It was interesting to hear about his process in developing ideas for sets and the numerous places it brought him in the world.

Jeremy joined us, and after a while we said our goodbyes and went looking for a place that had backgammon boards. Jeremy has finally nailed the rules and was eager to get some practice time in. We found a cozy coffee shop and plopped ourselves down on the plump, cushioned seats to play.

And, as if Sunday couldn't get any better, it finally came time for my amazing jewelry class. I had come prepared with a coffee cake in tow, for our mid-class cay break, and was happy to leave the rain and sink into the warmth of the people in the class and the tiny studio filled with specialized little tools. We finished the pendants we started last class, and I got to make a hollow ball (for a pendant), with minimal guidance from my teacher. Soldering the two halves together was the most exciting part and I got a little nervous, when my teacher started repeating the same phrase to me in Turkish, that I did not understand. He finally grabbed my hand, to lead me through the rest of the way. My classmates liked my cake and the calligraphy teacher, who often sits in on our classes, gave me the recipe for an easy dried fig and walnut cake, that I will try to make for next week.

Coming home, the day came back to water, as Jeremy was cooking fish for dinner. We enjoyed the tasty balik and settled into Sunday quiet time out of the rain, as I thought to myself, "I sure am lucky."

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