Istanbul, Day 1: Basilica Cistern

The columns of the Basilica Cistern in Istanbul.

I had the opportunity to visit the Wizarding World of Harry Potter this time last year. It was, as you might expect, a wonderfully magical place: wandering through Hogsmeade, with its crooked chimneys and carts selling butterbeer, was like being inside the books themselves. It was so easy to imagine that I really was walking through Hogsmeade, that I could pick up some new drawing ink at Scrivenshaft’s or swing by Honeydukes for a box of Ice Mice.

But the illusion fell apart whenever I looked too closely. The snow on the rooftops was fake, most of the storefronts were only window displays, and I don’t remember the Hogwarts grounds ever having a functional roller coaster. Despite the world-building talents of the Universal designers and the immense budget they were working with, we were still in Orlando, Florida instead of Wizarding Britain.

The rooftops of Hogsmeade at Universal's Harry Potter park.

I had a lovely time and I still get occasional butterbeer cravings, but as I walked around the park, I was struck by how fundamentally impossible it was to maintain the magic and wonder of the Harry Potter world in reality. Any visitor to the park above age ten walks in already knowing that magic isn’t real and that the Harry Potter books are fiction — which means that no matter how talented Universal’s designers are, they’re fighting a losing battle when it comes to creating the sense of unfamiliarity and strangeness that a Muggle visitor would feel if they actually visited Hogsmeade. For park visitors, who will immediately recognize the animatronics and pyrotechnics that underpin the displays of magic in Ollivander’s and Hogwarts*, maintaining the illusion requires some hardcore suspension of disbelief…not least of which is ignoring the thousands of other visitors and the roaring of the Hulk roller coaster in the distance.

Almost exactly a year after visiting the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, I found myself in one of the most breathtakingly magical places I’ve ever encountered — located, to my delight and surprise, in a completely mundane structure in Istanbul. The Basilica Cistern was constructed in 532 AD, during the reign of Emperor Justinian. The name isn’t hiding anything: it really is just a cistern, an underground chamber built to store water for what was then the city of Byzantium. This particular cistern is quite large — some three hundred and thirty columns support the ceiling — but it’s otherwise entirely nondescript. It has no elaborate mosaics or extensive carvings, no particular historical significance apart from being Byzantine, no sacred meaning.

The columns of the Basilica Cistern in Istanbul.

And yet it’s unspeakably beautiful. The space is dark except for up-lights placed on the columns, so the enormous pillars glow golden as they rise out of the water in their monumental ranks. Thousands of coins left by visitors line the floor of the cistern, shimmering faintly in the half-light. Shadowy carp glide through the shallow water, silhouetted against the glitter of the coins. The faint drip, drip of water echoes around the cistern.

At the back of the chamber, the lighting shifts. The walls recede into darkness in the far corner, and the lights on the columns there are faintly greenish. Visitors step down from the walking platforms to see the most famous columns in the cistern: two pillars supported by enormous Medusa-head carvings, salvaged from some temple or another. One Medusa head is upside- down; the other is sideways. Their stone eyes stare unblinking into the distance as you approach. When you look at them, there’s a frisson of strangeness, of the unnatural.

The upside-down Medusa head at the back of the Basilica Cistern.

I don’t know what possessed the cistern’s Byzantine — Christian — builders to put two Medusa heads at the back of the chamber, and neither do the archaeologists who excavated the space. While the informational placards put forth some theories about Medusa being used as a protective symbol to scare off intruders, much like the gargoyles on later cathedrals, their overall conclusion was that any explanation for the strange placement and orientation of the carvings remains, for now, just a theory.

This inexplicable inclusion of the Medusa heads is, I think, essential to the magical quality of the cistern. Without Medusa, the cistern is a lot like a Byzantine church: a beautiful interplay between darkness and the gleam of gold, highly atmospheric, almost tangibly sacred, but not unnatural. Wonderful, yes; marvelous, certainly; but entirely understandable, entirely civilized. There’s no strangeness, no uncertainty about why it was constructed, no element of the wild or the monstrous.

But with Medusa, with the addition of something our modern world can’t entirely explain, the space becomes strange, otherworldly, a little unsettling. In the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, the presence of other tourists was a constant reminder of how artificial the park was; here, the other tourists are a reassuring reminder that you’re safe, that no one else has died following the sign that points toward Medusa. I may have been surrounded by a dozen people snapping pictures when I saw the first Medusa head, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t considering whether the cistern architects knew something I didn’t, whether something was going to slither out of the dark water behind us.

Sign in the Basilica Cistern pointing the way toward the Medusa columns.

It’s hard to find truly magical places these days, places with the strong sense of possibility that lends itself to wild flights of imagination. I would be happy to stay overnight in the Hogwarts of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter with only a flashlight: just about everything in that place is a reminder that it’s only a replica, with none of the ghosts, both metaphorical and literal, of its fictional counterpart. I would be very reluctant to spend even a few minutes entirely alone in the Basilica Cistern. While I know in the daylight that it’s merely a cistern with some unusual gargoyles, the space is fertile ground for wondering and imagining, and I would spend the whole time on edge, waiting for the appearance of whatever ancient god or monster might call the cistern home.

I highly recommend a visit.

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