|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..
A baptismal font unearthed during restoration of Hagia Sophia has been revealed to the press. The baptismal font dates back to the sixth century and was used in mass baptism ceremonies. The pool, which shows the cultural and architectural style of the Byzantine period, will open to visitors in the spring
A large baptismal font unearthed during restoration work in the Hagia Sophia and dating back to the sixth century was shown to press members at a press conference Monday.
Istanbul 2010 European Capital of Culture Agency head Yılmaz Kurt noted that a Google search of “Hagia Sofia” yielded 800,000 results and said Istanbul was home to popular world cultural heritage sites. “We are proud to take the initiative in the restoration of this heritage site, provide financing and finish such a huge renovation project.”
Outlining the history of Hagia Sophia, Kurt said: “The construction of Hagia Sophia was ordered by Constantius II. The structure opened in 360 A.D. Its roof burned in a fire in 404 and its restoration took 10 years. In 415, Hagia Sophia opened once again. This second structure burned down in 532 and the church was constructed for the third time under Emperor Justinian. The columns of the Artemis Temple in Ephesus were used in its construction; it opened for the third time in 537. The dome was damaged in earthquakes and completely destroyed in 558. It reopened in 562.”
Kurt said the museum had undergone many restorations between 562 and 2010, the most comprehensive of which was during the reign of Sultan Abdulmecit, between 1847 and 1849. “Archaeological work was also carried out during the restoration process after which it became a museum,” he said.
Kurt said the ancient baptismal font, which was unearthed during archaeological work, would be open to the public for viewing. “The baptismal font was positioned in a place in the structure that was closed to visits. It is made of solid marble. The font, which shows the cultural and architectural style of the Byzantium period, is still very strong and clean. It is very important in the history of the museum and everyone will be able to see it.”
Hagia Sophia Museum Director Haluk Dursun said 2009 and 2010 were the best years for the museum in terms of restoration. He said there were two very important events during the restoration process, the removal of the 17-year-old scaffolding and the discovery of a mosaic featuring a six-winged angel figure.
Dursun said they decided to open the baptism pool to visitors as a surprise for 2010. “As of next spring, visitors will be able to see the baptismal font.”
He also noted that the Hagia Sophia was chosen as European Museum of the Year for 2010 thanks to the comprehensive restoration work and had received the Rotandi Award.
Baptistery becomes sultan tomb
Speaking about the features of the baptismal font, Dursun said the Hagia Sophia’s Byzantine (Greek Orthodox) baptistery building had been turned into an Ottoman sultans’ tomb, and the sixth-century baptismal font in it was moved to the baptistery’s courtyard.
He said the sultans who were buried in the tomb were those who had been dethroned. “When Sultan Mustafa I and Sultan İbrahim were buried there, the baptistery turned into a sultans’ tomb and the baptismal font in it was moved to the court without being damaged. It remained under the soil. This court is a very beautiful section showing Byzantine art.”
Dursun said olive oil was used in baptism ceremonies in Byzantine Orthodox culture. Historical olive oil cubes and sarcophaguses were also unearthed in the court.
He said as part of the restoration work in 2010, the baptistery’s courtyard was restored and the baptismal font was unearthed. “This font was used in mass baptism ceremonies. I guess we are the first ones to see it since the conquest of Istanbul, because the baptismal font was never used again once the Hagia Sophia was turned into a mosque.”
Visits in spring
Dursun said the baptismal font was 3.32 meters long, 2.52 meters wide and 1.16 meters deep. He said interest would increase in the Hagia Sophia Museum when the pool opened to visitors in springtime.
“The number of visitors will reach 3 million. I am concerned about this big interest, because the museum is too narrow. It creates problems when these types of work are visited by lots of people.”
Istanbul is often described as a city of two halves, spread-eagled over the eastern tip of Europe and the western edge of Asia. But it is much more than that: ancient and modern vie for attention on both European and Asian sides, with gleaming glass towers overlooking the traditional wooden buildings that still cling to the banks of the Bosporus. My favourite journey, up the Bosporus from the Golden Horn – either by boat from Sultanahmet's busy port of Eminönü or on foot along Necatibey Caddesi, the main street on the European side – is the perfect way to see the city.
At the beginning of this journey, and as the ancient grandeur of the Topkapi Palace, Haghia Sophia and the Blue Mosque drift away, the Istanbul Museum Of Modern Art, in its striking, if somewhat unsightly, converted Fifties warehouse, comes into view. The contemporary art scene is still small in Turkey, but don't underestimate the high standards of exhibitions at the Istanbul Modern – I love to spend a morning wandering around, with the reward of delicious tea in its beautifully situated café.
Continuing up the Bosporus takes you to an altogether different era and style of Istanbul: the Dolmabahçe Palace, which was built in 1855 for Sultan Abdül Mecit, but became the official residence of the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Although you can only visit by guided tour, the sheer extravagance and excess of the décor is a lot more fun than the more celebrated Topkapi, which is positively minimalist in comparison.
Once I've had my fill of the palace-lined shores of old-money Istanbul, I head uphill towards the modern face of consumerism in the main shopping avenue of Istiklal Caddesi. Make your way through the tight, winding streets of Çihangir and Galata, and once again you'll see old and new side by side. Sip espresso with the cool artistic set at Kahvedan on Akarsu Sokak or Tezgah, a café-cum-second-hand bookshop on Yeniçarsi Caddesi. Or shop in some of the best vintage shops I've come across (my favourites are Mozk Vintage Shop on Aga Hamami Sokagi and Matchbox on Matara Sokak), and browse the packed, ramshackle antique shops, like Güney Ticaret on Soganci Sokagi, that are full of dusty bric-a-brac. Yet wander a couple of streets away from this cosmopolitan enclave and you'll soon spot headscarved women hanging their washing out.
Did you know?
Istanbul has the world's third-oldest metro (1875), after London and New York
Istiklal Caddesi itself is nothing special, and is lined with familiar chain stores, but venture down any of its narrow side streets and you'll find plenty of cafés serving some of the city's most authentic Turkish coffee and tea.
When a sugar hit is what I need to make it the length of Istiklal Caddesi, I head for Inci, a small, wooden-panelled pastry shop dating from the Forties, about halfway down the street. It serves the most unctuous, cream-stuffed profiteroles I've ever tasted. And, as the only beverage on offer is a vivid yellow lemon drink, I'm sure to leave the place with enough energy to make it all the way to the Golden Horn and beyond.