Go there, it’s not far… You’ll need to go straight. The seller of corn and roasted chestnuts at Sultanahmet Square swings his arms and discursively tries to explain the way, pointing first at the Hagia Sophia, and then at another old sight, the small brick tower behind his back. Then he gives it up and smiles widely. “Where are you from?”
“This guy is from America, and I’m from Ukraine,” I repeat this cliche in English as I recall a quote from The Little Prince saying that adults like numbers very much and never ask about the most important things. Everything changes when you travel – nobody is interested in your age, work, or even name. Where are you from? and Do you like being here? are the only two questions that we hear during the entire week.
“Ukraine, huh?” the man easily slips into speaking Russian. “Fifty meters behind this Hagia Sophia, that’s the Topkapi Palace. And if you go fifty meters past that tower behind my back, that’s where you’ll find the Basilica Cistern.”
“That’s it?” While I look around trying to understand how this is possible (everything appeared to be located at arm’s reach), Chris asks the seller a question, “And where are you from?”
“I am Uzbek,” the man smiles proudly and passes me a hot ear of corn, making me wonder again how my boyfriend had noticed something that missed my attention. It seems that eating corn at Sultanahmet Square is a separate sight. Tourists sit on dozens of benches, talking passionately, eating corn, and look at the greenery, the fountain, and two of the most famous mosques of Turkey’s largest city, facing each other, separated only by a small garden.
The corn is delicious, but quite ordinary; I ate similar ones during my childhood. After that brief rest, we get up and head towards the Cistern.
If you do not know where the Basilica Cistern is located, you may easily miss one of the most important sights of the old Constantinople. The only thing advertising that something interesting might be happening in this small building is the long queue at the entrance where we had to spend about ten minutes. During this time, Chris had already found an old couple from New York among these people and started easy conversation with them. I almost did not interfere, only smiled politely and wondered about how many tourists from all over the world this huge city would welcome.
I advise you to visit all the places for tourists during working hours – queues will be smaller then. On Tuesday afternoon, we had to wait only ten minutes; returning on Thursday, which happened to be the national holiday “Republic Day,” the queue appeared to be four times longer.
Just like many other sights in Istanbul, the Basilica Cistern keeps a mark of time – its construction was finished in the year 532 under the rule of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I “the Great,” and for many years it was used as one of the largest water reservoirs at the empire’s capital. Basilica Cistern is the most common English name among tourists, because long before the huge reservoir full of water appeared, there had been a basilica at this place. However, in Turkish, more often the original names Yerebatan Sarnıcı “Sunken Cistern” or Yerebatan Sarayı “Sunken Palace” are used for the reservoir.
In total, 336 marble columns are there, each 9 meters high. The distance between them is 5 meters, and they stand in 12 rows of 28 columns each. Most of them were brought in during the construction process from different temples, which is why they are different in shapes and marble types. According to estimates, the Basilica Cistern can hold 80,000 m2 (2,800,000 ft2) of water.