andrew burke





Istanbul's Basilica Cistern: Gorgeous, Creepy, Nerdy

Posted on: 2010-07-05

Near Hagia Sophia in the heart of old Istanbul is an underground cistern. It was initially built by Emperor Constantine in the 4th century, and then expanded by Justinian around the same time as Hagia Sophia was being built, in the 6th century.

The idea of seeing a big water storage facility didn't really excite me at first.

But then I saw it:

Basilica Cisterns

It is a huge chamber filled with a grid of 40 foot tall columns. It was cleaned up and turned into a tourist attraction in the late 1980s - and they added some very dramatic lighting and some slightly cheezy classical music.

The whole sound and light show totally worked on me. It was beautiful and a bit creepy.

It also kept triggering nerd reactions. First off, it looks like the ancient underground Dwarf city of Khazad-Dûm from the Lord of the Rings. Next, the dramatic source lighting, the lit ramps between stone pillars and above water, made it look almost exactly like something out of a First-Person Shooter. In fact, I have recently been playing Half-Life 2, and it very much reminded me of the mines beneath Ravenholm:

Another Half-Life Level

And just to make sure Fantasy games weren't left out of my nerd roll-call, the back corner has Medusas:


Joking aside, coming across these heads, the empty eyes staring from inverted faces out across the centuries at nothing was quite chilling.

It's a challenging place for taking photographs, especially with a little snapshot camera like mine. However, manually setting it to ISO 50 or 100 and placing it on something solid for the long exposure seemed to bring up good images without lots of noise.

But of course at the far end of the atmospheric, scary cistern, was a snack bar:

Cistern Cafe

On this trip we've been trying to collect unique places to sit and have a drink - this was definitely one of them. We had pleasant, if overpriced, apple tea, and wondered if this place is ever used for raves, or perhaps very goth wedding receptions.

You can see more pictures in my Flickr Set.

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