Mystical water underworld of past empires reopens in Istanbul

Istanbul – Justinian the Great would have been proud.

The Basilica Cistern he built for the capital of his Eastern Roman Empire in modern Istanbul has reopened after a five-year renovation that transformed the water storage site into a refreshing haven of sound and underground light.

Built in 542 AD near the Hagia Sophia – then a cathedral – the basilica was once part of a network of over 100 cisterns begun by the Romans and completed by the Byzantines and Ottomans to supply the city and its palaces in running water.

Known in Turkey as Yerebatan Sarnici (“the cistern buried underground”), its rows of water-soaked columns became famous on the silver screen when they were featured in a scene from the 1963 James Bond film ” From Russia With Love”.

But the city had to partially close the site for restoration in 2017, fearing the basilica could collapse if the slightest earthquake were to rock Istanbul.

It has been completely closed since the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, allowing workers to reinforce and clear the 138-by-65-meter (453-by-213-foot) water palace, said Aysen Kaya, deputy head of the department. of the heritage of the municipality. .

Steel rods were stretched over the cornices of the 336 columns supporting the underground ceiling, arranged in 12 rows of 28.

The pink brick walls have also been cleared of traces of past, less elegant renovation efforts.

“By scraping away the added layers of cement, we brought the bricks up to date,” Kaya said. She pointed to two pipes discovered by the latest works: one that brought water to Hagia Sophia, and the other to a palace that stood before the sultans built the Topkapi harem next door.

The Basilica Cistern could store nearly 80,000 liters (21,000 gallons) of water, which cascaded into aqueducts in the mountains 19 kilometers to the north.

The feat helped protect the Byzantines from the summer drought.

– Jellyfish upside down –

The renovation also includes a lower walkway above the water, bringing tourists within half a meter of its surface. And thanks to improved lighting, the floor is now visible for the first time.

Beyond the structural changes, the basilica has been imbued with a mystical, almost spiritual atmosphere, with colored lights changing people’s perspectives and revealing new details.

A famous head of Medusa that adorns two of the corner pillars – carved, according to legend, upside down so as not to transform people who stare with it on the stone – now looks even more vivid and terrifying.

At the heart of the 1,500-year-old structure, a triumph of the art and techniques of its time, modern works have been inserted for added effect, like a gripping hand emerging from the water.

A translucent jellyfish artwork almost seems to dance between the columns, lit by the rainbow of colors illuminating the dark lobby with a soft glow.

“We wanted a light installation that didn’t take away from the mystical atmosphere of the place,” Kaya said.

The line of tourists snaking up to the entrance to the cistern under the hot Istanbul sun testifies to the success of the restoration.

“Absolutely amazing. I mean, totally unique,” ​​said Nick Alatti, a 40-year-old British visitor, who struggles to express his amazement in words.

“I’ve never seen a place like this before, ever. And he will live with me for a very long time.

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