Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Basilica Cistern and Hagia Eirene

I was on up again this morning before the call to prayer at 5:30am and had to find something to do to eat at the time until everything was open. So, I set about planning my day. I had breakfast of bread, olives, cheese and hard boiled eggs (best. Breakfast. EVAR.) and looked through my guide book to see what was on the agenda. This proved to be an entirely futile gesture as I never actually went to any of the places I planned to go.

I had planned to go the Blue Mosque today, but got distracted on my way there. While I was looking at my guide book, I saw that the Basilica Cistern, which many people had suggested I visit, was right next to this pillar I had stumbled upon yesterday and taken upon myself to look up. The signs here that label things, when there are signs, and when they are in English, are often entirely unhelpful.

The pillar was part of a triumphal arch made in the 4th century that was supposed to mark the distances from Constantinople to various other cities. During the first Iconoclasm, the Emporer at the time demanded that the image of Mary be scraped off and replaced with an image of his favorite charioteer. There is nothing so impressive left but I found it interesting that something so unimpressive could have once been so important.

On the map in my book, the entrance to the cistern was right behind this pillar and, out of curiosity, on my way to the Blue Mosque, I decided to take a detour to find the entrance. One thing led to another and I found myself down in the cistern before you could say 'what about the mosque?'

Honestly, I'm very glad I went. You go down these ordinary looking stairs and when you come out at the bottom, you are suddenly in this underground cavern held up by pillars and arches. The place was only lit by lights at the base of the pillars. That, combined with the shimmery effects of the water and the ghostly fish drifting in and out of sight, made the whole place eerie and mysterious.

The columns, apparently, were cobbled together with whatever was at hand, including pieces of other buildings. In the far corner, there are two Medusa heads supporting a pair of columns, which were obviously cut from another building. No one seems to know where they came from or why one is placed upside-down and the other on its side. All anyone knows is that it was done on purpose. According to what I've heard, the cistern was forgotten about until it was discovered again by a historian who followed a rumor about local residents being able to get water - and occasionally fish - by lowering a bucket below their basement floors. After that, it was used by the Ottomans for a dumping ground for all sorts of things - including the bodies of enemies - until someone took it upon themselves to restore it for tourists.

I stayed down there for a long time and just soaked up the spooky atmosphere. By the time I got out, it was time to move hostels. I had decided to stay in Istanbul for at least five more days as the idea of traveling any more right now makes me distinctly unhappy. I am going to re-assess the situation in five days time and decide wether to go to Ephesus then.

This means that I had to switch hostels because the one I was in was full up. When I went in search of a new one, I found a great place with a cafe on the roof that has a view of the sea on one side and the Hagia Sofia on the other. The guys at the reception desk were great and, after accusing the reception guys at my other hostel of being womanizers (I believe it), assured me that they were all gay. One even swore he was a lesbian.

When I checked in, the form I had to fill out asked what my occupation was and I really had to think about it for a while. In the end, I discarded all other possibilities and settled on the one closest to the truth: vagabond.

I moved my stuff, and again set out to go to the Blue Mosque. I was detoured first by my rumbling stomach (I seem to have trouble remembering to feed myself when there is so much to see and do), and then by my unholy lust for pomegranite juice.

Finally, I decided to give up on the mosque and head to Topkapi Palace instead. I got all the way through the first gate and my camera batteries died. So I went back to the hostel – stopping to shop on the way – grabbed my extra battery, and headed back to the palace. I got through the second gate this time before I realized I had passed the ticket booth at the first gate and had to hike back. At which point I was distracted by a sign that pointed to the Hagia Eirine, which is older than the Hagia Sofia, and which had been famously unburdened of all its images by the Iconoclasts. The interior has been stripped to the bricks, nothing but a couple abstract mosaics still exist and a very plain, very bold cross above the altar.

Despite this, the place still held an unearthly atmosphere, the kind that make people whisper even when there is no one else around. This effect was somewhat mitigated by the cat that was sitting by the glass window that led to the sanctuary. As I was taking pictures, it was rubbing itself all over me like cats are known to do. When I started petting it unconsciously (because thats what I do when cats are around) it stretched up to hook its claws into the lapel of my jacket. With my attention on the church I didn't really notice. The cat took my lack of protest as consent and the following sequence events ended with him hoisting himself up onto my shoulders. I didn't really care, I'm used to cats and their strange ways, but I was thinking of fleas and how unpleasant it would be to get them while traveling. Also, people were staring. I tapped on a nearby counter in the universal language of cats and demanded it get down. It took some persuading - he was clearly offended - but eventually the thing jumped off and left me alone.

As I was leaving and heading towards the Palace (really this time!) there was a museum of ancient Anatolian artifacts excavated from one of the oldest settlements in the region. Most of it was lame – because the labels were highly uninformative. They had a translation from a tablet written in Cuneiform (the oldest writing ever found) but nothing about where they found it or who the story was talking about.

There were also these seals that merchants used to mark their goods with their names. And If I hadn't learned about them in AP history I wouldn't have known what they were or been at all impressed or interested. They are really ingenius – shaped like cylinders, you roll them over clay and it prints out an image. The sign simply read: 'seals'

Another frustrating exhibit contained these bits of gold foil that were placed over the eyes, mouth, and cranium of a human skull. The description simply read: 'Gold foil'. Well, obviously it's gold foil, I wanted to scream, but why did you put it on the skull? Don't you think that is a little more important to understanding the display than what it is made out of? It's like describing each tree when someone asked about the forest. I'm looking for the bigger picture, here, folks.

I contented myself with studying the skull and determined that it was, in fact, a real skull. A real skull of an African man not yet 25 years of age. Hells yeah, Forensic Anthropology.

After this I was too tired to endure the four or five hours of viewing the book said I would need to do the palace justice, so I ended up back at the hostel. Though it isn't even sunset yet, I'm feeling like today I was just not meant to see these places. There's always tomorrow.

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