ON day 6 we decided to wander to the Asian side of Istanbul. Actually just the fact that this city is situated on two continents is a pretty cool idea.
We went with a ferry to the district of Üsküdar, one of Istanbul’s oldest established residential areas on the Asian side. Üsküdar has a long promenade along the coast which you can walk from the centre. You have wonderful views of some of the beautiful palaces and mosques on the European shore.
The promenade is also lined with cafes and restaurants, with probably one of the most prominent restaurants not on the coast but in the water – Maiden’s Tower. It is just a small tower off the coast in the Bosphorus strait that has existed since Byzantine times. It was used as a toll booth, but now it is an upscale restaurant and even a venue for wedding parties.
Different legends exist about the tower, its location and how it came into existence. The most popular Turkish legend is about a sultan who had a much beloved daughter. One day an oracle (a person who made certain predictions) prophesied that she would be killed by a venomous snake on her 18th birthday. In an effort to prevent this from happening the sultan built this tower in the middle of the Bosphorus so she would be away from land and thus away from any snakes. She was placed in the tower and would remain there until her 18th birthday. She was frequently visited, but only by her father!! Then on her 18th birthday the sultan brought her a basket of exotic fruits as a birthday gift, delighted that he was able to prevent the prophecy to be fulfilled. But upon reaching into the basket an asp – venomous snake – that had been hiding among the fruit, bit the young princess and she died in her father’s arms. Hence the name Maiden’s Tower.
Back on European soil we went to have a look at the Basilican Cistern. This enormous underground cistern (or reservoir) was built by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian(527-565). The cistern is 140m long, 70m wide and is a giant rectangular structure. Once you have descended the 55 steps you’ll walk into this amazing cathedral-like structure – 336 columns in total, each 9 metres high. There are 28 columns spread over 12 rows. Some of the columns are solid marble and they are made in the Corinthian or Doric style. The cistern had the capacity to store 100 000 tons of water and during the time it was used, water was brought through over 64km of aqueducts from a reservoir near the Black Sea.
Also in this cistern are two Medusa heads used as bases of columns which are actually masterpieces of sculpture art from the Roman Period. Although it is unsure where these pieces of art came from, they will – unsurprisingly – attract the most visitors. Researchers in general believe they were brought to the cistern to be used simply as column bases, but maybe not….there are many myths about Medusa. And they are intriguing….
During the Byzantine period the cistern covered the water needs of the imperial palace and residents living in this area. It was apparently used for some time after the Ottoman conquest of Istanbul in 1453 when the gardens of Topkapi Palace were watered from this cistern. But it seems the Ottomans preferred running water to stagnant water and after they installed their own water system they gave up using the cistern water.
Amazingly the cistern was forgotten about for centuries until somewhere in the middle of the 16th century a Dutch researcher, P Gyllius, came to Istanbul to conduct research on Byzantine remainders and discovered the cistern again.
Comprehensive renovation work has taken place until as recent as 1987 to restore the cistern and open it to visitors.
And like those times long ago the cistern is hosting fish again!
PS. Day 7 and our final day in Istanbul coming up soon….