City as palimpsest

It is not uncommon for the mosques of Turkey to stand on foundations that are not their own. New owners have remodeled original Byzantine structures for centuries. Mosaics of Christian saints decorate whitewashed Byzantium ceilings. The soil is rich with the debris of succeeding empires and the everyday wares of people long forgotten.

The Yeralti Mosque is the basement of a former Byzantine fortress. It was once a prison. The mosque appears tentatively at first from behind a nondescript facade on a busy street. Inside its walls, the ceiling hovers seven feet above the subterranean ground level and imposing rectangular columns obstruct and cut their own private nooks of worship. It is an anomaly in a culture of communal praying that appreciates the spiritual accommodations of open spaces. It has the constancy of a quiet, cavernous darkness.

The cisterns of Yerebatan Sarnici are among the last vestiges of Istanbul’s Roman past. They were the water source for the majority of the vast city known as Constantinople. Now measured by several Istanbul city blocks, Yerebatan Sarnici is a large, underground room held up by supports made from plundered material. A pair of twin medusa heads supporting two of the columns is a mystery. Were the faces a protection against evil, or merely scraps of the right size and practical function? The cisterns were forgotten until 1545 when a Frenchman observed people acquiring water by lowering buckets through holes in their basements. They had lain in darkness for centuries before that. The Turks that took the city preferred to draw water from a running source and never bothered to do anything with the elaborate Byzantine construction. In 1987 they were restored and have since been flush with tourists. The odd, pigmentless animals that may have swum in the dark waters have fled - only camera flashes penetrate their eddies today.

All photographs by Zaq Landsberg

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