Aya Sofya, the Basilica Cistern

Today I woke up, as all y’all did, with the clock set one hour forward, and went down to find that breakfast hadn’t even been set yet! That’s how I found out that Turkey decided to postpone the hour change to tomorrow, because of today’s local elections, and I had in fact woken up an hour early! I had trusted my iPhone to switch automatically, and in fact it did -just not to Turkey… Ah well.

I started my day with the big prize: Aya Sofya, the great 6th century basilica, later converted to a mosque, later still turned into a museum. All I have to do to get there from the hotel is go up a slope, walk around the Four Seasons and make a right. It’s been a glorious day, sunny, not a cloud on the sky, rather cold but not overly so.
There was a sizable queue at the basilica already at about 9:30 or so, but it advanced pretty fast. Unlike at the airport, international queuing law applied and I only had one lady in a hijab push me aside to cut ahead! Progress!
Once inside, the dome of the Aya Sofya is just as spectacular as I imagined. Sadly, there was scaffolding covering up an entire side of the hall, floor to ceiling, so the effect was a bit diminished, but it’s just so impressive all the same. The genius of this construction is that it doesn’t rest on pillars; or rather, it does, but they’re hidden inside the walls, so it’s very much a “floating dome”. I’d been told that the true miracle of the Aya Sofya wasn’t its enormous exterior size, but rather the massive open space it managed to capture inside. Today I saw for myself that this is very much true.

The building has traces of all the different cultures and civilizations that have owned it over the past 1,500 years: the ground it was erected on was the site of a Greek church, although the basilica was Byzantine. It houses the grave of a Venetian doge from the 1200s I think. It has both Greek and Latin mosaics, which were covered up after the city fell to the Ottomans in May 1453 and the Sultan ordered that Aya Sofya be converted into a mosque. Now precious few of those mosaics remain, but they’re beautiful and it’s sobering to think that people were already awed by them more than a thousand years ago. By contrast, those huge, disproportionate medallions with golden writing were added in modern times, for whatever reason, and while I like the calligraphy there must have been a better way of displaying it.

Like the Blue Mosque, every surface here is painted, but in warm tones rather than cold. Yellows, oranges, reds and browns… They give the place an almost homely feeling.
(Fun fact: I read inside that the Aya Sofya was built in five years flat. There are apartment blocks in my neighbourhood that have been under construction for longer than that.)
MY WORD the call to prayer just sounded and I nearly had a heart attack. Anyway, moving on!
I took my good time walking around inside the basilica, making sure I went to the gallery above (the ramp to go up isn’t super evident -I was looking for it because I could see people walking on the second level), and then left feeling like I had covered every square inch of the place.
My next stop was just around the corner: Yerebatan Sarnici, or the Basilica Cistern. This is one place that I was really excited to see and that EVERYBODY I talked to about it just went “Mmhmm”. It’s the ancient water deposit of the basilica, which has been intermittently closed up and forgotten, and then rediscovered and reopened throughout history. 
It’s underground, so you have to enter via an unassuming, tiny brick building on the road next to the square. When I got there there was barely a queue, maybe 15 people. I took my place in it and I heard the French couple walking behind me gasp; the man exclaimed, “Y A UNE QUEUE TERRIBLE!!!” and they both huffed and left in an offended trot. I almost called back: “Dude, this is nothing, have you been to the airport?”.
The visit to the cistern was an absolute wonder. It’s very dark, very quiet, and although they have ambient music it only adds to the atmosphere (it was a very tasteful, unobtrusive flute tune, no elevator music). Even surrounded by tourists, I felt alone in the dark, surrounded by Byzantine columns, feeling the moisture in the air.

There were fish in the crystal-clear water, and every once in a while I could hear water dripping from the ceiling and onto the platform -which is SUPER WORRYING when you’re in an underground manmade cavern carved out a millennium ago, but, well, it’s already flooded, so how much worse can it get? I saw the famous Medusa: two huge Medusa heads, presumably nicked from a Graeco-Roman temple, then used as base for two columns. 
I loved the place. I don’t care that it’s just a water deposit!
I stopped for lunch and ordered humus and something Turkish-sounding that turned out to be essentially steak and fries, except served with haydari (a sauce made with yoghurt, dill and garlic). But the meat was delicious and I love haydari, so no complaints there!
There was the question of what to do with myself for the afternoon. I briefly considered the Topkapi palace, but it looks enormous and I thought it better to leave tomorrow morning for that. It was already late for the daily Bosphorus cruise, so that’s off for tomorrow as well. In the end I opted to make the most of the sunny weather and walk around Sultanahmet. I went down to see the Marmara sea, walked down Kennedy Avenue all the way to Küçük Ayasofya (“Little Ayasofya”, and it’s very küçük indeed), made my way back up the hill to see the remains of the old Hippodrome (now just two obelisks and a column, but you can imagine the quadrigae racing around them) and finished by checking out Sogukcesme Sokagi, the Street of the Cold Fountain. It’s a beautiful, tiny cobbled street with traditional Istanbul houses, wooden and painted in pastel colours. If that makes it sound a little bit like the archetypical San Francisco houses, the resemblance is there!

Although it may sound like a lot, it didn’t exhaust the afternoon… but it exhausted me, so I made my way back to the hotel, where I’m writing these lines before heading out to dinner. More tomorrow!

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