Cistern and Archaeological Museum
We descend into the underground Basilica cistern, spend hours in the Archaeological Museum and end up getting lost.
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Bread, honey, olives and cucumber. Probably the most randomly assorted breakfast I have eaten in a long time. Vonne has less appetite for the olives and goes for the grapes instead, which makes this an entirely mediterranean breakfast in the hotel’s rather cosy diner slash restaurant.
The Basilica cistern
Since we’ve slept in after a long previous day and the morning is already drawing to a close, combined with the fact that today’s weather forecast is rather ominous, we decide that it would be a good idea to restrict ourselves to indoors attractions. The first candidate of which is the Basilica cistern, and the second the Archaeological Museum. Since both of these are not far from the Hagia Sophia, we head in that direction through a very light drizzle. We soon find a shop that carries fold-up umbrellas and in exchange for a few lira we are now armed against the threat of rain. It is obvious that the Turks possess a keen eye for trade, for soon the streets are flooded with salesmen offering umbrellas to passers-by.
Once we get to the Hagia Sophia, we quickly find the small building that grants access to the underground cistern. Two tickets later, we descend along a wet and slippery marble staircase into a spectacular sight in the dimly lit dark. A vast space is filled with columns standing in a pool of clear water, with fish darting to and fro. Built by emperor Justinian in order to provide the palace with a source of fresh water, as a tourguide informs us, the cistern was not discovered until a century after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinopel, when local inhabitants were spotted lowering buckets through holes in their cellar floors, bringing up both water and fish. Although we are easily able to navigate the space across modernly lit walkways constructed between the columns, it is not hard to image an Ottoman entering this underground vault for the first time, armed with naught but a torch; the sight he would have seen would be a seemingly endless gallery of columns, with the dim light of the flames dancing on the bricks of the domed ceiling.
Having spent some time walking around, we ascend once again to the surface. In order to still the appetite that we have built up, we take a seat in one of the many kebab restaurants for a dürüm and a coke. Invigorated by this lunch, we set out for the Archaeological Museum and find it within the fortified outer walls of the Topkapı Palace grounds.
The Archaeological Museum
Stating that the Archaeological Museum has an extensive collection would be a severe understatement. In the first building we discover Egyptian artefacts and the Mesopotamian collection. Reliefs of the Ištar Gate of Babylon, statues of the rulers of Lagaš, of Šalmaneser III and inscriptions by Sennacherib and Aššurnașirpal II, they have it all. After intensively studying everything on display, giving Vonne a crash course in Akkadian and being way too enthusiastic about a display containing cylindrical seals, we proceed to the main building.
And there, we are greeted by room after room filled with statues. From Greek kouroi to Classical reliefs, busts and statues of gods and emperors alike, occasionally intact but usually lacking the head and/or arms: the evolution of centuries of sculpture is on display. There are rooms filled with Egyptian and Greek sarcophaguses, pottery from just about every layer of Troy and a replica of the front of a temple to Athena—a classical historian could spend hours here. And as a certified one, that is precisely what I did. Having seen nearly the entire collection, the museum closes up for the day and we are kindly requested to vacate the premises.
Weary from an entire day of walking around, we set ourselves down in the Gülhane park, where a single potato crisp that we accidentally drop on the ground ensures us of the undivided attention of a stray cat for the better part of half an hour. We decide to go and have dinner, so we make an attempt to find the area with the restaurants that we had visited yesterday, but end up being slightly less than what you could call with a straight face, successful. There is a saying that all roads lead to Rome, but that appears to be an outright lie. They all lead to Constantine’s column and the tomb of Sultan Mehmet II.
We then realise that we still have the business cards that we received at some of the restaurants the previous day, and that they probably have the address on them which we could use to find them again—they have a use after all! Not much later (and about two blocks away from where started off at) we find ourselves in front of a wide selection of restaurants. Of course, at a first glance in the direction of any of them we get practically jumped by the guys who—it must be said—give it their utmost effort to talk you into theirs. We are at the receiving end of promises of tea and guitar play, a surprising amount of Dutch (do all these people take language courses, or what?) and offers of other miscellaneous Good Things.™ I do not think I have ever seen anyone look quite as triumphant as the man whose restaurant we pick out after having walked a circle and being intercepted by two competing gentlemen we had talked to earlier. We could hardly refuse after having promised him not to break his heart by going into the restaurant next door, after all!
The food is really good, however, and the giant plate of fruit that Vonne receives for dessert is excellent, as are the tiny glasses of Turkish apple tea. It is also a fairly unique experience to find your restaurant’s terrace to be the working grounds of a group of professional beggar cats, who pass by each single table to look at its occupants with big watery eyes in order to see whether they would be willing to part with a portion of their meal, after which they all gather in a corner to discuss strategy.
Having enjoyed dinner, we return to the hotel for a good night’s sleep. Tomorrow, another day of Istanbul awaits!