The 55 stone steps take me to a vast underground opening where rows of floodlit columns are partially submerged under the clear freshwater. Grey fish – some are bigger than a cat and never see the sun – roam around the submerged columns, undisturbed by the constant flow of humans walking on the platform above. This is Basilica Cistern, built by the Romans in the 6th century AD to provide freshwater for the inhabitants of Constantinople. The old city of Constantinople was surrounded by seas – Sea of Marmara to the east and south, and the Golden Horn to the north. Hence building cisterns was necessary to ensure freshwater supply for the city.
Owing its name to the once great basilica that stood above it, Basilica Cistern is the largest of all ancient cisterns in Istanbul. The ceiling is supported by 336 columns with capitals in Ionic, Corinthian, and Doric styles. Two columns at the far end of the cistern draw people’s attention the most as they are supported by two large Medusa heads, one curiously turned upside down and the other leaning on the right side of her face.
One of the most important buildings in the old city which relied on the cistern for its freshwater supply was the Great Palace of Constantinople, which is now mostly in ruins. The Romans are known to build remarkable buildings in regions across the Mediterrannean Sea which were once in the realm of the great empire. Some structures were built out of necessity – such as the Basilica Cistern – and some others were constructed merely for entertainment. Being the seat of power of the empire since the 4th century, several typical Roman structures were built in the old city, including near the great palace itself.
One of the works commanded by Constantine the Great was the renovation of the Hippodrome in the 3rd century which were built during the reign of Emperor Septimius Severus more than a century earlier. As the name signifies, the Hippodrome was a public place where chariot races took place. Located next to the great palace, the Hippodrome was one of the few places where the emperor and the people could be spotted at the same place.
To boost the image of the new capital of the empire, Constantine and his successors brought artworks from all corners of the empire to be showcased at the Hippodrome. The Serpent Column from the Temple of Apollo (Greece) and the obelisk of Tuthmosis III from the Temple of Karnak (Egypt) were the two most prominent artworks which were brought to the Hippodrome. Throughout the time, later additions were constructed in the Hippodrome to maintain the prestige of this place, and the empire in general. Some of them barely survived the time – such as the Walled Obelisk, while some others had long completely gone.
On a cloudy day I walk down the Hippodrome, or what is left from it. The 3,500 years old Obelisk of Tuthmosis III – also referred as the Obelisk of Theodosius – is still remarkably intact, standing in front of the Walled Obelisk which was once covered in gilded bronze plaques. The dirt tracks are now covered by cobblestones, the Great Palace of Constantinople had long fallen apart, and the empire had long perished. But its traces are spread throughout the ancient world, leaving us with questions and imagination of the time when it reached its peak.