Running downhill from Topkapı’s Imperial Gate, Soğukçeşme Sokak is a wool-over-the-eyes bit of urban set design. Formerly a row of dilapidated old wooden buildings, in the 1980s the original street was demolished and recreated in concrete disguised under pastel-painted weatherboard panelling. Intended to evoke the atmosphere of Ottoman Istanbul, the ‘old houses’ are one long straggly boutiquey hotel, apart from one which contains the Istanbul Library.
Following the tram tracks back uphill leads to a right turn and a lone, single-storey building that sits over the entrance to the Yerebatan Sarnıcı (Basilica Cistern), the grandest of several underground reservoirs that riddle the foundations of this part of the city.
Built by the Emperor Justinian at the same time as the Haghia Sophia, it was forgotten for centuries and only rediscovered by a Frenchman, Peter Gyllius, in 1545 when he noticed that people in the neighbourhood got water by lowering buckets through holes in their basements. It’s a tremendous engineering feat, with brick vaults supported on 336 columns spaced at 4m (13ft) intervals. Prior to restoration in 1987 the cistern could only be explored by boat (James Bond rowed through in From Russia With Love). These days there are concrete walkways. The subdued lighting and subterranean cool are especially welcome on hot days. Look for the two Medusa heads at the far end from the entrance, both recycled from an even more ancient building and casually employed as column bases. There’s a cafe down here and a platform on which occasional concerts of classical Turkish and Western music are performed; check with the ticket office for further details.
A second cistern, the Binbirdirdek Sarnıcı (the ‘Cistern of 1001 Columns’, except that there are only 224) has recently opened to the public. It’s another Byzantine forest of pillars and brick-vaulted ceilings but sadly the restorers have put in a false floor that halves the original height of the chamber (a well at the centre illustrates the original floor level). No one has yet figured out what to do with the place and it currently unsuccessfully accommodates a couple of cafes, a bar and a restaurant. The admission fee gets you a free drink.