While İstanbul has been basking in its year of glory as a European Capital of Culture, a goodly number of new books about the city have been published. One of the most interesting is “The World Beneath İstanbul” by Ersin Kalkan, which takes a look at the city's underground attractions.
Like London, Paris and Rome, modern İstanbul stands on a site that has been continuously occupied since prehistory, and over the centuries the ground level has steadily risen as the detritus of old buildings accumulated. Its main attractions may still be the above-ground wonders of Topkapı Palace, Aya Sofya and the Sultanahmet Cami (Blue Mosque), but for those who like to delve a little deeper it's surprising what can be found just beneath the surface of the city.
One of İstanbul's best loved attractions is also one of its most curious. Across the road from Aya Sofya, the Yerebatan Sarnıcı, also known as the Basilica Cistern, is extraordinarily romantic, not least because of its atmospheric music and lighting. For many visitors, though, it is something of a mystery. What on earth was this structure with its 336 columns lined up in rows, their bases sitting in water? Well, it was a giant holding tank for water that had been piped in from outside the city walls. This particular cistern continued in use into Ottoman times. When full it would have been able to hold some 80 million liters of water.
For most visitors just gazing over the eerie vista of the columns is pleasure enough, but within the Yerebatan Sarnıcı there are also some specific sights including a pair of columns decorated with what look like the eyes in a peacock's tail and two column bases adorned with giant heads, one of them said to depict the gorgon Medusa. The fact that one head is upside down and the other on its side suggests they were seen as just so much reusable rubble to the builders.
Yerebatan is the most famous of İstanbul's cisterns, but it's far from the only one. If the crowds waiting to get in are off-putting you may be pleased to learn that you need only stroll up Divan Yolu (the road with the tram running down the middle) and turn off on the left to discover the Binbirdirek Sarnıcı. Despite its name (1001 Columns Cistern), this cistern turns out to have a measly 224 columns. Recently, another cistern just behind what used to be the old Sultanahmet Belediyesi (Municipality) building, near the Pierre Loti Hotel, the Şerefiye Sarnıcı, has also been stripped off its accumulated rubbish so that visitors can admire it.
Caught the cistern bug? Then you may also want to seek out the pretty little cistern underneath the Nakkas carpet shop in Nakilbent Sokak in Sultanahmet and the much bigger Sultan Sarnıcı (now a restaurant) near the Sultan Selim Cami in Çarşamba. Slight remains of another cistern can also be seen inside the Rezan Has Müzesi (museum) in Cibali on the Golden Horn.
Unlike the covered cisterns, the city's four open-air cisterns go virtually unsung even though in their heyday they would have been more immediately obvious. One of the most prominent of these mini reservoirs can be found right beside Fevzi Paşa Caddesi in Fatih where it houses the Vefa football stadium. Another, known to the locals as Çukur Bostan (Sunken Garden), is immediately in front of the Sultan Selim Cami and once housed an entire suburb that features as the backdrop in Jenny White's gripping crime novel “The Abyssinian Proof.” Today it contains prosaic sports facilities. Inspect the walls of both structures more closely and you will see telltale signs of the original Byzantine brickwork.
The Great Palace
Before the coming of the Ottoman Topkapı Palace, the area that is now called Sultanahmet was the site of the Great Palace, home to the Byzantine emperors. Like Topkapı, this was not so much one big building like Buckingham Palace as a collection of brick-and-stone mansions and pavilions linked by corridors and open spaces. Because the Ottomans chose to base themselves in the same place, most of the Great Palace is lost beneath more recent monuments. However, one remarkable reminder did come to light back in the 1930s when a giant mosaic from the Magnaura Palace, one of the constituent parts of the Great Palace, was discovered. Today visitors to the Great Palace Mosaics Museum get the chance to gaze down on a carpet of tiny pieces of stone, glass and colored marble depicting scenes of everyday life in Byzantine times. Look out in particular for a bear up a tree, a monkey trying to catch birds and two boys playing with a hoop the color of whose clothing may have been chosen to evoke the colors of the most popular chariot teams of the day.
Another relic of the Great Palace can be viewed by diners at the Paladium Restaurant in Kutlugün Sokak or the Albura Kathisma Restaurant in Akbıyık Caddesi in Sultanahmet. This mysterious stretch of domed halls and corridors is believed to have served as a covered corridor inside the palace. Its excavation was a labor of love undertaken by the owner of what was until recently the Başdoğan Asia Minor carpet shop.
Yeraltı Cami (underground mosque)
Hidden in the back streets of Karaköy, this subterranean mosque was built to house the remains of two Arab holy men who are believed to have taken part in an effort to capture Constantinople in the seventh century. It stands on the site of a tower to which would have been attached one end of the chain used to close off the Golden Horn to shipping in Byzantine times.
Sacred springs (Ayazmas)
Frequently overlooked by casual visitors to the city are the innumerable sacred springs -- around 200 of them according to some sources -- which can be found in or near many Greek Orthodox churches. Amongst the most popular with pilgrims are those inside the Balıklı Kilise (Fish Church) opposite the Silivrikapı in the city walls, and the Blachernae Kilise in Ayvansaray on the Golden Horn, although those of a more adventurous bent might like to venture out to Kuruçeşme where a spring can be found at the end of a tunnel adorned with stalactite-like rock formations behind the church of Hagios Demetrios, or to Moda where a spring dedicated to Hagia Katerina lurks inside the grounds of the Koço restaurant.
Büyük Taş Han (Big Stone Han)
Behind the Laleli Cami in Fethi Bey Caddesi stands a restored han whose underground stable now houses a restaurant. In a somewhat unexpected footnote to Byzantine history it's believed to stand over the site of a brothel in which the infamous Theodora, later the wife of the Emperor Justinian, started her working life.
For their eyes only
Many other treasures lie hidden beneath the city although all too often only the archeologists get to see them. There are, for example, tunnels and cisterns right under Aya Sofya that have been explored and then sealed up again. And excavations for Marmaray, the project to build a tunnel beneath the Bosporus to link Yenikapı and Üsküdar, uncovered the remains of the city's huge medieval port and a treasure trove of wooden ships with their cargo still intact. Finds from the ships were until recently on show in the İstanbul Archeology Museum. It's to be hoped that a new permanent home for them at Yenikapı will soon be on its way. The impressive Anemas Dungeons attached to the old Blachernae Palace at Ayvansaray are still undergoing restoration. As for the much-heralded Archeology Park in the grounds of the Four Seasons Sultanahmet Hotel that would offer visitors a glimpse at a cross-section through history from the remains of the Palace of Justice that burnt down in 1933 to those of a Byzantine bathhouse, sadly we are still waiting for it to open one year after the ticket office was installed...
Source: Todays Zaman