We had passed on the Basilica Cistern twice before because of the long lines. As they say, third time’s the charm. This time we decided to brave the queues. A gentleman came up to us and said that since my husband was using a walking stick, we could go straight in instead of queuing. We thought he was trying to sell something, like a rug, so we didn’t really pay attention. But he insisted “I help you,” he said.
He seemed legit so we followed him to the entrance of the Basilica Cistern, where he talked to the guard outside, who then waved us in. My husband tried to give the gentleman a tip as a token of thanks but he refused, “I’m glad I help you” and then left.
The Basilica Cistern
10 Turkish Lira grants access to a wonderful feat of engineering dating from the 6th century. It was built under Emperor Justinian as a water supply for the Great Palace, no longer standing. 336 marble columns support the weight of the vaulted ceiling. The source of water was the Belgrade Forest, about 20 kilometres north of Istanbul and it reached the cistern via the Valens Aqueduct. It is one of the many cisterns built in ancient Constantinople.
The reason the line is long outside is that they restrict the number of people that can go down to the cistern. This many go out, this many come in. I think it’s a good idea; otherwise the wooden walkways would be uncomfortably crowded and probably unsafe.
Nowadays, about two thirds of the Basilica Cistern is visible but it is enough to get an idea of its monumental scale. We strolled along the walkways, listening to the soft classical music playing in the background, admiring the carved columns and looking at the fish that swim nonchalantly between them.
As it turns out, that gentleman did have ulterior motives. After the visit to the Basilica Cistern, we sat on a bench outside Hagya Sophia enjoying a delicious simit. He recognized us (followed us?), came up to our bench and tried to sell rugs! He actually said he owned a rug shop and gave us his business card. He was not pushy or insistent, and understood we were not interested in buying a rug.