Yesterday evening, a group of Vikings became explorers. During our first night docked in Istanbul, I took part in the Underground Cistern excursion offered by Viking Cruises. The excursion was to take our group on a nighttime tour of Istanbul’s old underground cisterns from long ago. Being a fan of history and eerie sounding places, I knew this excursion was perfect for me.
Boarding the buses outside of our ship, we Vikings hopped aboard and tuned into our personal audio devices, connected with the voice of our guide. Typically, I don’t care for this kind of “touristy” group audio tour, but having a headphone in one ear allowed me to listen to the guide and wander off on my own from time to time. I’m a wanderer stricken by wanderlust.
Upon arriving in the old city of Istanbul, we disembarked our bus and made our way to the steps leading down into the cistern. Istanbul has a huge number of cisterns, but this particular one, the Basilica Cistern, has been transformed into a museum for visitors to walk around in. Stepping down the steep and damp stairs (it is a cistern after all), a vast open space obstructed only by columns and arches appeared before me. Under the glow of soft lights, I could see the water below the wooden walkway shimmering throughout the massive cistern. I stood in awe for a few moments as the size and depth of the underground cistern really hit me.
Long ago during the Byzantine Empire, these cisterns were used to store and protect large volumes of water for the city. The large cisterns were practical not only because they stored water close to the city, but ensured the city would have adequate water in the event an aqueduct was destroyed by invading forces.
As I continued walking through the cistern, three columns stood out. First was a column that broke away from the standard design found on every other column, but instead featured tear like symbols. In the center was a small hole, which according to ancient legend, would bring good luck to anyone who could insert there finger and turn their thumb in a complete circle against the column. (Oh yes, I succeeded.) Following a number of almost ominous “Medusa” signs, I stumbled upon two columns with an intriguing base: the head of Medusa. Luckily, I didn’t turn to stone, but still, the fear was there.
After taking one more walk along the long passageways underneath the high arches of the cistern, our group reemerged to the busy streets of Istanbul. Stunningly, across from the cistern stood the beautifully lit Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. We all took some time to explore the park area between the two mosques and later settled into a cozy cafe next door. We Vikings spent the rest of our evening sipping tea, enjoying traditional Turkish desserts, sharing travel stories, and gazing upon two of the world’s most magnificent buildings. Our first evening with Viking Cruises was a true Turkish delight.