The best thing I saw in Istanbul

Walking down the street on the way to the Topkapi palace, seat of the Ottoman kings. We pass a doorway, and peeking into it, we see it’s a gift shop. I would grow to hate gift shops in Bulgaria – for some reason, every church is entered via the tchotchke stand. There’s a big bold sign that says this shop is exit only, though. I was curious, but such is the way of the Sakulich people: I was on my way to the palace, so I was going to go to the palace. No time for such diversions. But I was travelling with a seasoned adventurer, an explorer of the highest order, and she suggested we find out to what was this gift shop connected. We found a sign that said ENTRANCE FORTY METERS with an arrow going up the street. We went to the corner, and there was a guard with an MP5 and a scowl, certainly a deterrent to the sightseeing types. There’s a concrete blockhouse, a fine example of, shall we say, Berlin 1938 construction, across the street.

“Maybe that’s the attraction.” Says my comrade. But it’s across the street, at ground level – and the gift shop is on this side of the street, at ground level. How could they connect? I mild wave of irritation sloshes over me. We have palaces to see, after all. We go across the street, and find there’s a 5 Turkish Lira entrance fee. It’s for something called a cistern.

We descend a flight of stone stairs and enter into a cavernous space. Hundreds of columns rise and are lost in the darkness, illuminated by orange-red lights at their base. There’s a rickety wooden walkway that winds between the stone columns. Below, there’s neck deep water. Apparently, this is where the Romans kept their drinking supply back in the day.  It’s 20 degrees cooler down here, which is good, because it’s 100 degrees outside. Centigrade. The place is huge. You can’t see the ceiling, and from the center of it, you’d think the entire universe was an underground cavern. They’re playing some sort of wooga oooga ambient music that I’m sure Scott would approve of. They knew what they were doing.

In the back corner, there are two columns standing a hideous carved stone faces. The brochure says they were taken from a pagan temple in Syria, and brought to this location by the Romans. I suspect that, in face, they were taken from my darkest nightmares, and brought to that location by a team of imps on a chariot hitched to a stallion made of flames.

I exited through the gift shop, refreshed by the temperature, and numbed by the experience. Had it been up to me, I never would have known it was there. Since so much was up to me over there, what was there that I’ll never know about. So much to see. So much to learn. So much to do.

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