A Favorite Place

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Had to change planes in Istanbul recently. With only three hours between flights there was no time to leave the airport to show my family the city that may be my favorite in Europe. Instead I just thought of the places I had seen, and today one of the highlights of a previous trip. This post first ran in 2015.

Sometimes the guidebooks have it right, as I discovered last year on a trip to Istanbul.

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When you visit that city there are certain must see sites, such as the Hagia Sophia, The Blue Mosque and Topkapi Palace, all of which I will get around to talking about here in the not too distant future. My favourite site though was one I had never heard of before that was mentioned by the guide book I took out of the public library to use on my trip: The Basilica Cistern. I almost missed it – I noticed the sign in passing and as there was no line we went in.

Visiting a water filtration system wasn’t something I had considered before. Occasionally our local water purification plant in Ottawa is open to visitors, but I have never bothered to check it out. My wife and son took in the Paris sewers one year and both enjoyed it. Next time I am in Paris I will probably make that a priority.

I never did figure out why Medusa’s head is upside down at the bottom of this column. Given that it would usually have been underwater, maybe it was a symbolic drowning.

Tucked underneath Istanbul’s streets, the Basilica Cistern is an engineering marvel. From the street it is just a small grey building. Underground it is a fairy palace. What I had expected to be a brief visit, something to check off the list, took more than an hour, and I could have happily spent more time there. It is a peaceful place, a veritable oasis in the hustle and bustle of a city of 15 million people.

I could tell you the history but I’ll keep it brief. Its construction was started by Constantine (that’s fourth century if you need the reminder), enlarged by Justinian (sixth century) and is bigger than a football field. It can hold almost three million cubic feet of water, though is mostly empty today. It is no longer part of the city’s water system but does play host to the occasional symphony concert. That is something I want to experience on my next trip to Istanbul, I can’t imagine a more interesting setting and the acoustics are great.

After visiting the cistern two thoughts have stayed with me.

The first was the craftsmanship and attention to detail. The columns are works of art, painstakingly carved by master artisans. A cistern is a pretty functional thing; this building is underground and designed to hold water. Yet it has the feel of a great cathedral.

My second observation was more to do with the nature of modern construction methods and materials. We are living in the early 21st century. The Basilica Cistern was expanded to its current size in the mid sixth century, give or take a year. It looked pretty solid and durable to me.

Somehow I doubt that any of the construction projects underway in my home town will still be here in 1,500 years. There has been debate about the need for a new hockey arena where I live, with the suggestion that the current rink is almost at the end of its life. It is not quite 20 years old. Apparently we either no longer can build things to last, or we don’t want to.

I want to know which it is, and why.

If you are ever in Istanbul, do make a visit to the Basilica Cistern a priority.

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