The Cisterns are not to be avoided!!
There are at least seven, and I visited three of them. The first I went to, and currently the grandest, is the Yerebatan Saray (Underground Palace) Cistern, just at the beginning of Yerebatan Saray. I think that it also gets the most tourists, as it is close by to Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque.
It was constructed just after the Nike revolt (when lots of people were conveniently massacred by Justinian in 532). It was used to store water for the Great Palace (remember that its mosaics are now found under the carpet merchants street are few hundred yards away.
According to Freely, knowledge of it was lost after the Turkish Conquest in the mid-15th century, and it was only rediscovered in 1545 when a scholar of Byzantine antiquities discovered that people were getting water through holes in their basements, and even fishing!
It is quite enormous - 140 metres by 70 wide, with 336 columns in 12x28 rows. It is quite magnificent now - with a sound and light show on, and a cafe in a rather dank atmosphere (yes, there is still water). There is one magnificent column which rests upon the upside-down head of a goddess (now which one is it?), and there are Corinthian style capitals, and a column that has tear drops. I think many of the columns were reused from other buildings. The skill of Byzantine-Roman engineering is there for the eye to behold, that's for sure.
Just up from the cistern is a small mosque, which I went into because of its historic experience. According to Freely its architecture, which is basically a dome with a porch, is one of the few examples of the pre-classical, pre-1500 style. It is nothing special inside, but I had some fun.
I notice some boys - the boys who sell guidebooks and pictures to tourists - reading Arabic, slowly and hesitantly. Turkish, you may remember, is not Arabic, so it has to be learned (as does the script). They were sitting in a slightly cordoned off area (I don't know the name in Arabic, but it has a low, low fence), and I went over to them, looked at the Arabic book, and started reading with them. They were pretty surprised, and motioned for me to sit with them. Well I did, and they made me wear prayer beads too, a traditional thing, I suppose.
One of them was pretty cheeky, and thought it all a bit funny, so I gave him a clip over the ear, something many parents would love to do, but are hesitant with our fuzzy let it be liberalism. Well, of course, as I predicted, this was expected!! One of them actually chanted quite well, but whether or not he understood was another thing.
It was all a bit of fun, I am sure they knew that I was not a Muslim, but I think they appreciated a bit of amateur help.
The second cistern, not far away, but easy to miss, is now undergoing massive restoration, the Binderbek (Thousand and One) Columns Cistern. There is a little building in a playground off Isik Sogaki - along Divan Yolu, and some not very interested staff sit up top, and barely motion to go through the entrance.
The restoration process might be much more advanced now, but when I walked down the very steep, narrow stairs, the place was buzzing with workmen restoring the enormous space for what looked like of all things, an indoor shopping complex or market place. There are 224 columns, some 12.4 metres high, with what Freely calls 'herringbone' domes between them. Most striking are the monograms inscribed on the columns - top and bottom. I copied down some of them - maybe YKN, EP (ie Epsilon Rho), and some are mirror image. Freely says that they are the masons' marks. More romantically, I thought them of various emperors or officials.
I walked out another entrance - large enough for a truck, onto Divan Yolu, I think.
The third cistern I found is certainly the scariest, and I nearly missed it. It is the Theodosius cistern, nearby, I think off Klodfarer Cadd. (for Claude Farrer). There is a little square, and off it is some sort of police building, and in the entrance to the right, one can walk through to a door. A not very helpful policeman of sorts will point the way.
Beyond the door lies dank, awful place - I only got a few steps onto the platform and saw that the place was full of water. With my torch I could make out some pillars, but it is the sort of place where people go and never come back. No kidding. I hope it gets drained soon.
The Great Museums
One of my reasons for ostensibly visiting Istanbul was to visit the museums complex which is next to the Topkapi area, down a winding path where there are restored or neo-old traditional houses for the rich and famous, it seems (or special visitors)
The classical collection is housed in an enormous neo-Victorian building, founded by Hamdi Bey, the first Ottoman museum director, and an important cultural figure in the history of the country, as I think he was one of the first modern Turks educated abroad. There is a beautiful Ottoman inscription to him in the entrance to the museum, and a display about his life that is well worth looking at.
The courtyard area is scattered with classical remains, including delicate 'basket' weave tops of columns, made of marble, than one can weave one's fingers through, another tear drop column, and huge red granite sarcophagi (maybe from Egypt) with crosses upon them.
There is a lovely tea garden, where more of these remains are scattered, and I had a nice glass of chai in there.
The Ancient Orient holdings are held in a newer, more nondescript building. Regrettably, its opening hours are restricted, and seem to change, and this really annoyed me, as Assyriology is my area of professional training. It obviously isn't a crowd puller.
When I eventually did get in (on my second visit - another $6), I was disappointed at the rather limited, if absolutely magnificent display - some glazed panels from the Ishtar gate at Nebuchadnezzer's palace in Babylon, one with a wonderful lion, a diorite (?) statue of Puzur-Ishtar from Mari on the Orontes, one of the ancient governors of an important outpost; early Sumerian stone plaques, stacked in a cupboard, and some inscriptions of Gudea, but not his wonderful statues. A great pity.
The Hittite and neo-Aramean display was pretty staggering, though neglected: some enormous statues and inscriptions, but best of all, in my mind, is a little altar inscribed in Aramaic with a poor, sad looking sacrificial bull on the side!!
Directly across from the Archaeological museum (still to be described) is the magnificent Cinili Kiosk - regrettably closed. What a pity - a magnificent recessed pavilion, dating from 1472 and built by Mehmet II, the front covered in Iznik tiles. To quote Freely "it is Persian in design and decoration, a derivation which is emphasized by its long and beautifully written Persian inscription giving the date of construction". The best view of it is had by walking up the steps of the museum opposite. It may have been a viewing stand for jirit (polo).
But that disappointment was sort of made up for by the unexpected treasures in the Archaeological museum itself, with its collections from all over the former Ottoman Empire.
It is worth having a good guidebook to fully appreciate the classical collection, so I will only point the range of treasures to be seen:
- The Sidon Treasure
- Alexander busts
- Roman relics from Bithnyia (up on the black sea)
- Byzantine Constantinople remains
- The Trojan horse
Hamdi Bey had the good fortune to discover this extraordinary treasure when excavating a necropolis at Sidon (now in Lebanon). One wonders how many other treasures like this have been split up and destroyed by grave diggers and treasure hunters over the past hundred years.
The sarcophagi are beautifully displayed, and if one wants to have a sense of the beauty of Hellenistic classical antiquity - with some paint still on the enormous Alexander' sarcophagus, sphinx and all on the lid - this is the place to go. Just give yourself plenty of time, and take a deep breath.
The carved figures on that sarcophagus are miniatures of the great sculptures of antiquity that we are all familiar with, but his time, not broken, but virtually intact. On the greatest coffin, they tell a story of Alexander fighting the Persians, and there he is, on horseback, frozen in time, trampling Persians. And so our western myths and heritage was formed.
- many stele
- Byzantine relics from the hippodrome
Trojan horse, Bythnian roman relics
The Mosaic Museum
The day after my arrival, after the delicious breakfast - bread, olives, egg, salad, cheese and coffee on the roof of the Side Pension, I headed off to the museum at opening time, prepared for the best!! And I found it straight away. he wait for the mosaics was well worth it. The mosaics are probably the floor of a palace of Constantine or Justinian, and are like those found in other great Roman sites in the Empire. Rustic, bucolic, hunting scenes etc, some in perspective.
Actually, I am, and was at a loss for words about just how superb these mosaics are. Pick any book of Roman mosaics and dive in - there you are!! Maybe they are not as 'alive' as the mosaic of the dog found in Pompeii with a caveat to the intruder; or the mosaics (copies of Hellenistic wall paintings) depicting Alexander the great - but I wouldn't mind having one in my house!! Its a pity, but due to circumstances beyond my control, I could not get to see the mosaics in the Galilee (Israel) that I had been hoping to visit, but I saw some old favourites in the Israel Museum, local Jewish versions of Byzantine art. Worst of all, I couldn't even get a peek of the great 'Armenian' mosaic, which lies behind the Petra Hotel in East Jerusalem. The Armenians own the building, and just won't open it up, though it is one of the great master works of the Holy Land.
Some of the scenes seemed highly stylised in depicting movement (eg courtiers fighting a lion); kids (in blues and greens colours), running along, rolling hoops through the hippodrome; a lovely mosaic of a boy and his doggie. It probably all dates from Justinian's time, and is a floor of the grand palace.
The eagle and snake in a fatal embrace is striking (and a theme taken up throughout history - eg in the US). There are also fragments and depictions of all sorts of mythological scenes that would have been immediately apparent to the viewers.
The mosaicists used semi-circles of white/cream to depict background, and some object areas.