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Inside the Hagia Sophia

The Hagia Sophia isn’t just the best-known tourist attraction in Istanbul, or one of Europe’s most cherished landmarks… it’s one of the greatest buildings in human history. This church, nearly 1500 years in age, was once the center of Byzantine faith, later reborn as the predominant mosque of the Ottoman Empire, and today has found a new purpose as one of the world’s most popular museums.

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We spent nearly three hours inside the Hagia Sophia. There’s a lot to see, and all of it is fascinating. This is the kind of place where even the floors, doors and walls have stories to tell. I’m serious: this circular pattern in the floor marks the Omphalos, where Byzantine emperors were crowned. That massive wooden door is the Imperial Gate, reserved for the entrances of the emperor and his family, and rumored to have been made from the wood of Noah’s Ark. And there in the wall, you’ll see one of the church’s magnificent Byzantine mosaics.

These mosaics have survived the centuries in superb condition, thanks mainly to Muslim sensitivities. Human representations are disallowed in mosques, so the mosaics were covered up and thus protected during Ottoman rule. The mosaic above the aforementioned Imperial Gate depicts Emperor Leo VI on his knees before Christ. There’s a wonderful Deesis mosaic in the upper gallery, with Mary and John the Baptist imploring Christ to forgive humanity. And the mosaic of Mother Mary with baby Jesus in her lap, in the dome of the apse, is marvelous. But our favorites were those of the four seraphim, God’s guardian angels, in the dome’s supporting pendentives. During restorations in 2009, one was discovered to have a face hiding underneath its protective golden shield.

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Impressive as the mosaics are, they can’t compete with the church’s dome: a true architectural wonder. Measuring in at 55 meters in height and 32 meters in diameter, with 40 windows that allow in abundant light, this dome was by far the largest ever attempted when it was constructed. Especially with the two half-domes which exaggerate its size, the dome creates an illusion of immense space. Standing down at ground level, looking up, it’s hard not to feel insignificant.

Yes, standing in the center of this church, looking up at the massive dome and its seraphim, admiring the giant Arab calligraphy, considering the number of emperors and sultans who have passed through here, and who have probably stood exactly where you’re standing right now… it’s very hard not to feel insignificant. Because, and it takes maybe an hour inside the Hagia Sophia before you start to genuinely grasp this, you really are insignificant. Look up again at that dome. Think about how long ago it was built, and then try to say aloud “My life has worth”. Ridiculous. You’re a tiny drop in the ocean of human history. You, your silly problems, your proudest accomplishments… they mean absolutely nothing.

Wow. Thanks for ruining my day, Hagia Sophia. But despite the small existential crisis, our visit here was one of the highlights of our time in Istanbul. Unforgettable.

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May 21, 2013 at 1:45 pm Comments (4)

The History of the Hagia Sophia

Were we excited to visit the Hagia Sophia? It’s just one of the most legendary buildings on the planet. The largest church in the world for a thousand years. The scene of some of history’s most decisive moments. A breathtaking architectural achievement on a scale unthinkable for its day. Yes, I suppose it’s fair to say that we were excited.

Hagia Sophia HD

Ever since arriving in Istanbul, I’d been eagerly anticipating our visit to the Hagia Sophia. Scratch that: I’d been eagerly anticipating a visit since 1984 when, at the age of seven, I read about it in the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Now the long-awaited day had finally arrived, and it was every bit as amazing as I had hoped. The instant I stepped inside the Hagia Sofia, the Church of Divine Wisdom, I felt transported into another world.

The building we see today is actually the third church built on the site. The first, completed in 360, was destroyed during a riot in 404, and no trace remains. And the second church was burnt to the ground in 513 during the infamous Nika Riots. One of worst riots in history, this popular outburst of rage resulted in tens of thousands of deaths and the destruction of half of Constantinople’s buildings. The Byzantine Emperor Justinian, though, emerged unscathed and more powerful than ever. With a free rein to rebuild the city as he liked, he started with the Hagia Sophia.

Completed in 537, Justinian’s new church was immediately hailed as an unprecedented architectural achievement. The empire’s greatest mathematicians and physicists had been brought in to supervise and consult on the construction, nothing on the scale of which had ever been attempted. The Hagia Sophia was by far the biggest church in the world, and would remain so for nearly a thousand years. It’s almost unthinkable. Try to imagine how otherworldly and groundbreaking a modern-day skyscraper would have to be, to remain unsurpassed for the next millennium. I don’t actually think it’s possible, anymore.

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Despite its preeminence, the Hagia Sophia hasn’t been immune to the passage of history. It exists, after all, in one of the most tumultuous capitals on earth, and has had as many masters as Istanbul has had names. First and foremost, it was a Byzantine church and the center of the Orthodox world. For a brief interlude, from 1204 to 1261, it was converted into a Roman Catholic church, following the Fourth Crusade which crippled Byzantine. The marauding crusaders even installed a prostitute on the patriarch’s throne, in mockery of the Eastern faith.

Luckily, the next masters of Constantinople would treat the church with more respect. After sacking the city in 1453, the Ottoman forces under Mehmet II the Conqueror enjoyed three days of pillaging, but the Hagia Sophia was mostly spared. The church had been as famous in the Arab world as in the Christian, and it had been Mehmet’s lifelong ambition to see it converted into a mosque. During the long eclipse of the Byzantine Empire, the church had fallen into a deplorable state, but the Turks restored it to its former glory. For the next 500 years, it served as the most important mosque in the Ottoman Empire.

In 1935, the nascent Turkish Republic recognized that the Hagia Sophia was more important as a monument of our shared cultural heritage, than as yet another mosque. On the orders of Atatürk, it was converted into a museum. A good move, in my opinion. Today, it’s one of the most popular tourist attractions in the world, and certainly among the most impressive we’ve ever visited.

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May 19, 2013 at 2:14 pm Comments (3)

The Archaeology Museum Complex

Set atop a hill in Gülhane Park, just meters from Topkapı Palace, the Archaeology Museum Complex boasts one of the world’s most stunning collections of ancient artifacts. At the height of its power, the Ottoman Empire stretched across major sections of Europe, Asia and Africa, so it should come as no surprise that countless treasures have found their way to Istanbul.

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The museum was established in the late 1800s, partially to combat the widespread practice of spiriting off archaeological finds to countries like England or Germany. (Whether this was done to loot or protect them is perhaps a matter of perspective.) The Ottoman Empire was in the process of Westernizing, and the establishment of a Archaeological Museum to protect and display its treasures was a step in the country’s new direction.

Today, the complex consists of three museums. Of these, the Archaeology Museum is the focal point, occupying a massive neoclassical building. The museum wastes no time in impressing, placing its most stunning artifacts in the rooms just past the entrance: The Sarcophagi of Sidon. Found during a famous dig in modern-day Lebanon, these incredibly well-preserved and exquisitely decorated coffins held the bones of kings. The most famous of them is the Alexander Sarcophagus, which depicts the great Macedonian king in battle scenes (though it was not, as originally thought, his coffin).

The museum features objects found across the Ottoman Empire and ancient Byzantine, with mummies and statues joining historic relics like the snake’s head stricken from the Hippodrome’s Serpentine Column. A large exhibit on the second floor is dedicated to the archaeological history of Istanbul — a collection so complete and interesting, that it could easily justify its own museum. Another exhibit is dedicated to objects from the regions neighboring Turkey, mostly Cyprus and Syria.

This museum requires at least an hour from even the most disinterested visitor, and we were inside much longer than that. So, our legs were happy to take a tea break at the pleasant outdoor cafe, in a garden decorated with an army of ancient statues.

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Right across from the Archaeology Museum is the beautiful Tiled Kiosk, home to the Museum of Turkish Ceramics. Thankfully, this museum was small. The tiles found within are striking, and there was plenty of information about the history of Turkish ceramics, but (for us) the highlight was the building itself, built in 1472 for Sultan Mehmet II as a pleasure palace.

Finally, we drug our weary bodies into the Museum of the Ancient Orient, which concentrates on artifacts from Egypt, Mesopotamia and Anatolia. We liked this collection almost as much as the Archaeology Museum’s. It includes the world’s oldest peace treaty, the Treaty of Kadesh, signed between Egypt and the Hittites in 1297 BC (a copy of which hangs on the walls of the United Nations). There’s also a beautifully preserved, and opened, Egyptian coffin and mummy, as well as tiles from Babylon’s legendary Ishtar Gate.

Given the ridiculous amount of incredible things to see in the Archaeology Museum Complex, the price is entirely fair, at just 10TL ($5.50). I also found the audio-guide to be worthwhile. Despite its proximity to Topkapı Palace, there are relatively few tourists here, so it makes a great place to escape the hordes and lose yourself in the ancient world. In all, a highly-rewarding place to spend a few hours… or perhaps even an entire day.

Location on our Istanbul Map
Istanbul Archaeology Museum – Website

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April 11, 2013 at 5:23 pm Comments (8)

The Remains of the Hippodrome

An arena nearly half a kilometer long, packed with 100,000 howling fans. The emperor seated with his family in the imperial loge, disinterestedly following the proceedings. Hundreds of golden statues, columns, monuments and treasures decorating the track. And the thunderous sound of 32 horses, galloping under the whip’s cruel crack. Oh, to experience the Hippodrome during Constantinople’s Golden Age!

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Little remains of this once great public arena. The Hippodrome, built in the 3rd century, had fallen into disrepair long before the Ottomans claimed the city in 1453, and the new rulers of Istanbul had little use for chariot racing. But the arena’s general shape survived in the form of Sultanahmet Square, and one chunk of its massive retaining wall is still visible in the southeast corner. So it’s not difficult to get a sense of the Hippodrome’s former size.

Of the many monuments which were once lined up along the track’s spine, only three remain. Coming from the south, the first of these is the Walled Obelisk: 32-meters in height and with the appearance of a mid-game Jenga tower. It had been covered in gilded bronze until the Fourth Crusade, when Europe’s Christian soldiers decided to end their “holy quest” by sacking their Christian brothers in Constantinople. By the time they were done looting, the Crusaders had stripped the Walled Obelisk bare.

Meters away is the Serpentine Column: a strange spiral of weathered bronze. There had originally been three snake heads atop the column, which was taken from Delphi at the command of Constantine the Great. This is one of humanity’s oldest Greek treasures, crafted in 478 BC as an offering to Apollo, following the legendary Battle of Plataea in which an over-matched alliance of Greek states defeated the powerful Persians of Xerxes I. The column’s snake heads were lopped off sometime during the Ottoman regency of Istanbul, but one can still be seen in the city’s Museum of Archaeology.

The Serpentine column’s age is impressive, but the Hippodrome’s third monument is even older. A lot older. The Egyptian Obelisk was originally erected in Luxor sometime around 1450 BC. That’s about three and a half millennia ago. Give or take a century. Made of red granite, it’s in unfathomably good condition, despite being moved to Constantinople by Theodosius in 390 AD and re-erected in the center of the Hippodrome.

The obelisk is covered in bizarre Egyptian hieroglyphs and its nearly perfect condition just adds to its mysterious aura. Many believe it to be imbued with magical powers and, while I’ve never been one to buy into mysticism, it’s hard to remain completely skeptical while in its presence.

Location of the Hippodrome on our Map

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March 23, 2013 at 6:25 pm Comments (2)

The Blue Mosque

Popularly known as the Blue Mosque thanks to the color of the Iznik tiles lining its walls, the Sultan Ahmed Mosque dominates Istanbul’s skyline with six minarets. Completed in 1616, the mosque is still used for worship, but due to its grandeur and location, has become a popular tourist attraction.

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From the moment it was proposed by Sultan Ahmed I, the Blue Mosque was contentious; not only did it require demolishing the palaces of powerful Ottoman ministers, but the unusual number of minarets was considered an effrontery. Four had long been the accepted maximum, with only the Grand Mosque in Mecca claiming six. But Sultan Ahmed was a man used to getting his way, and refused to budge. Luckily a compromise was found before any blood was shed: another minaret was simply added to Mecca’s mosque.

The Blue Mosque is stunning, especially when viewed from its courtyard. Perfectly symmetrical and of jaw-dropping size, the curved domes, rounded and hexagonal turrets and towering minarets work with the courtyard’s arches to create a profile of sublime beauty. It’s hard to imagine the impact such a sight must have made on visiting 17th-century dignitaries… or, perhaps it’s not at all hard to imagine. Their reaction must have been the same as mine: speechless awe.

We removed our shoes and stepped inside. Indoors, the mosque is not as cavernous as it would appear from the exterior, but it is exquisite. Over 20,000 blue Iznik tiles decorate the walls, making the room glow, and the central dome is spacious enough to house a large family of pigeons. Four gargantuan pillars called the Elephant’s Feet support half-domes, and the plentiful light filtering in through stained-glass gives the mosque a bright and spacious air.

We loved our visit to the Blue Mosque, and were surprised to be in and out within twenty minutes. There was no wait in line and no admission charge, though a small donation is appreciated, making this surely one of the most magnificent “quick and easy” sights we’ve ever visited.

Location on our Istanbul Map
The Blue Mosque – Website

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March 22, 2013 at 6:18 pm Comments (6)

From Sultanhamet Square to Beyazit

Before we arrived in Istanbul, I spent a long time poring over a map of the city. And I needed a long time, because Istanbul is catastrophically huge. The megalopolis has stretched its border (and the bounds of belief) to over 2000 square miles, remorselessly swallowing any unlucky village in its path. I was nervous that in order to reach the various sights scattered about Istanbul, we’d have a lot of long bus and train rides to look forward to.

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The Arch of Theodosius

So the reality of getting around in Istanbul has come as a major relief. The city is far easier to walk than I’d feared, and public transportation is cheap, quick and efficient (if crowded). Most importantly, most of the major sights are packed closely together in or near the historic center. On one of our first days, we walked along the tram line from Sultanhamet Square (next to the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia) to Beyazit: a short, straight walk during which we saw one historic treasure after the other.

We started at the fountain between the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. Tourist central. Locals have almost entirely moved out of this neighborhood, which is now dominated by foreigners and the people who cater to them. After visiting the Sunken Cistern, we escaped the morass by walking west down the Divan Yolu, or the “Road to the Imperial Council”. As the name suggests, it’s a thoroughfare which has been integral to the city since Roman times.

Column-of-Constantine

Following the tram tracks, we soon reached the Column of Constantine. Known in Turkish as the Çemberlitaş sütunu (Hooped Stone), this is one of Istanbul’s oldest surviving relics, erected in 330 AD, when the city was christened Constantinople and became the capital of Roman Empire. The column was damaged by an earthquake in 416, after which the iron hoops were added, and again in a massive 1779 fire that earned it another nickname: the Burnt Column.

Across from the gate to the university, we found the ruins of the Triumphal Arch of Theodosius. There’s not much left to see; the ruins, only discovered in the 1950s, are laid rather haphazardly on the ground and won’t mean much to the archaeological layperson. But experts have been able to determine how the arch must once of looked.

Perhaps even more than the monuments, we enjoyed the modern city sights: the googly-eyed tourists at Sultanahmet Square (I don’t mean that disparagingly; googly-eyed is the only way to be when flanked by the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque), stray cats lounging on city benches, men hard at work on one of Istanbul’s endless construction projects, and students on their way to class. The 21st century hurrying busily along its path, oblivious to the ancient relics all around. It’s a fun dynamic, and one we’ll be seeing a lot of in Istanbul.

Location of the Column of Constantine | Arch of Theodosius
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March 17, 2013 at 3:49 pm Comment (1)

The Great Palace Mosaic Museum

Not much remains of the Great Palace of Constantinople, built in 330 AD and home to Byzantine emperors for over 800 years. After taking the city in 1453, the Ottomans reduced the palace to rubble and eventually erected the Blue Mosque on top of it. But not all was lost. Excavations in the 1920s uncovered some brilliant mosaic patterns which had once decorated the palace’s floors and walls. And these have been preserved in the Great Palace Mosaic Museum.

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The entrance to the museum is hidden in the midst of the bustling Arasta Bazaar and we walked right past it a couple times, distracted by the colorful carpets and souvenirs. But once inside, the place is fascinating. As far as possible, the mosaics of the palace have been left where they were found. It’s estimated that there were up to 80 million individually-laid cubes of terracotta and glass. Only a small fraction has survived the tumult of the centuries, but it’s more than enough to impress.

The scenes represented in the mosaics are both natural and mythical, with bears and monkeys joining griffins and chimeras in the patterns. There are fruits, floral scenes, and humans engaged in hunting, fighting and playing. Placards around the museum do an excellent job of explaining each surviving mosaic, enhancing the experience dramatically.

Location on our Istanbul Map
Great Palace Mosaic Museum – Website
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March 15, 2013 at 3:01 pm Comments (3)

Yerebatan Sarnıçı – The Sunken Cistern

Hundreds of underground cisterns lurk beneath the surface of Istanbul, the largest of which is the Yerebatan Sarnıçı, or the Sunken Cistern. Built by Constantine the Great in the 4th century to provide water to his palace, it’s survived the ages in remarkable form.

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Descending the stone stairs into the Sunken Cistern, it’s clear that you’re stepping down into a darker, older world. There are modern day touches — raised platforms with handrails, warning signs, audio-guides, hordes of tourists, music playing over loudspeakers, bored attendants cajoling you to dress as a sultan for a picture, and flashing cameras — but they’re easy enough to filter out. After all, one of the ancient world’s most hauntingly beautiful treasures is lit up before your eyes.

There are only a couple feet of water left in the cistern, but that’s enough for giant carp to swim around in, and it nicely reflects both the rounded arches of the roof and the 336 columns arranged in a symmetrical 12×28 grid. These supporting columns, thought to have been pilfered from sites around the Roman empire, are of various styles. Many are completely unadorned while others are capped with Corinthian floral designs. I saw one that was square, and another patterned with teardrop-shaped peacock feathers.

The cavernous cistern with its giant pillars and water dripping from the ceiling would make a great setting for the climactic scene of an old fantasy epic. It’s easy to imagine Perseus slowly advancing through the cistern, aware that danger might be hiding behind any one of the columns. He holds his sword and shield at the ready, while the sound of serpentine hissing echoes through the hall. Behind a few columns, he encounters scowling demons and jumps back, ready to strike. But no. They are only statues; hideous statues of men screaming in pain and confusion. “Where are you, Medusa?”, Perseus screams. “By Zeus’s thunder, where are you?”

Turns out, the Gorgon actually does lurk in the shadows of the Sunken Cistern. Overturned Medusa heads form the base of two columns in the far back corner. One is fully upside-down, while the other has been turned onto its side. They were placed in the cistern for protection — Medusa has often been used as a charm against evil (which we learned while puzzling over Sicily’s flag) — and have been flipped over to counteract the terrible power of her gaze.

We had an incredible time in the Sunken Cistern and, although a comprehensive tour doesn’t need to last any longer than twenty minutes, we stayed for almost an hour to soak in the atmosphere. For the best experience, arrive when the doors open. At 9am, we found the cistern almost entirely empty of other tourists, but it was becoming intolerable by the time we left.

Location of Yerebatan Sarnıçı on our Map

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March 14, 2013 at 2:45 pm Comments (8)