Istanbul’s mystical Basilica Cistern reopens its doors

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The Basilica Cistern, one of the jewels of Istanbul, built under the rule of Justin the Great, reopened its doors after five years of renovations that transformed the water tank into a refreshing underground refuge of light and sound.

Built in 542 near the Hagia Sophia, then a cathedral and now a mosque, the basilica was part of a network of more than 100 cisterns begun by the Romans and completed by the Byzantines and Ottomans to supply water to the city and its palaces.

Known in Turkey as Yerbatan Sarnici (“buried cistern”), its rows of columns were made famous in a scene from the James Bond movie “From Russia with Love,” filmed in 1963.

But fears of the basilica imploding at the slightest jolt from an Istanbul earthquake led the city to close the site in 2017 to reinforce its structure and restore it.

It was completely closed after the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, so workers reinforced and cleaned the 138-by-65-meter water palace, said Aysen Kaya, deputy head of the municipality’s historical heritage department.

Steel rods arranged in 12 rows were installed on the cornices of the 336 columns that support the underground ceiling.

The brick walls were cleaned of the traces of previous and less neat restoration attempts.

“By scraping away the added layers of cement, we exposed the brick,” Kaya said, pointing to two pipes exposed by the new works: one that carried water to Aya Sofia and another to a palace that existed before the sultans they built the Topkapi harem next door.

The Basilica Cistern could store almost 80,000 liters of water coming from aqueducts in mountains located 19 km to the north.

This helped the Byzantines to shelter from the summer drought.

The renovation removed a footbridge for tourists located 1.6 meters above the ground, allowing visitors to get within half a meter of the water.

But in addition to the structural changes, the basilica was infused with a mystical, almost spiritual feel, where the changing colors of the strobe lights change people’s perspective and reveal new details.

A famous Medusa head that adorns two of the pillars — which according to legend were carved upside down so people who see it don’t turn to stone — now looks more vivid and terrifying.

At the heart of the structure, representing the art and techniques of the moment, contemporary works have been inserted for greater effect, such as a hand emerging from the water.

A modern, translucent jellyfish appears to dance between the columns, illuminated by the rainbow of colors that illuminate the dark room with a soft glow.

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

The queue of tourists to enter the cistern in the summer heat of Istanbul testifies to the success of the restoration.

“Absolutely amazing, totally unique,” said Nick Alatti, a 40-year-old British tourist.

“I have never seen such a place before and it will live with me for a long time,” he said.

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