by wjw on December 14, 2011

Here’s another picture from our 2012 calendar.  This is the Basilica Cistern in Istanbul, built by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian in the 6th Century AD.

I’d say it’s holding up pretty well.

The photo gives you an idea why the Turks call the cistern the “Sunken Palace.”   It’s the size of a cathedral, with the roof standing over 60 feet high, and can hold nearly three million cubic feet of water.

It’s one of hundreds of cisterns beneath the city,  most of which have been forgotten.

The roof is supported by 336 columns, all scavenged from earlier structures, mostly pagan temples throughout the empire.  When the strict Christian emperor Justinian told his governors to send him pillars, they by-God did.  Hundreds more were used in building Hagia Sofia. The columns are many colors, sizes, and textures, and one is notably carved with peacock’s eyes.

When the cistern was in use, the water would have risen to the ceiling.  Now that it’s a tourist attraction, there are only a few feet of water on the bottom, home to numerous swarms of carp highly attracted by the floodlights.  There’s a constant drip of water falling from above.

James Bond punted through the cistern in From Russia, With Love.  Jackie Chan staged an action scene here in Who Am I?

The lighting is actually dim and pale.  The garish colors of this photo are an artifact of my digital camera straining desperately in the dim light and trying to make sense of what it sees.  I decided not to correct the colors because this photo actually reveals more of the structure than you’d see with the naked eye.

It’s eerie and echo-y and vast.  Justinian demolished scores of pagan structures and then used the remains to build this cyclopean monument, seemingly to some cthonian god.   We are in a cold, watery underworld here, great and limitless, stretching as far as the imagination will allow.

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