Thursday April 22nd 2014: Cisterns + Topkapi Palace



Topkapi Palace was home to an estimated 4,000 people at its peak time of operation, today it is one of the most visited tourist destination in Istanbul supporting about 10,000 visitors a day (source.  Not even the rains stopped visitors for seeing this museum of Ottoman history and Islamic artifacts, the damp day we visited was very crowded. The most vivid memory of my trip was having to squeeze my way out of the harem. Then rejoicing at having some space in the harem courtyard, and being thankful that the rain kept most the people under the arcades.

While at the Topkapi Palace Museum the rain and unpredictable cold kept me near the café enjoying coffee and happily people watching. After a few hours we had a walking history lecture, and it brought to light some tidbits and misconceptions that made me wonder what it would have been like to see the palace in its ruling state. First the misconceptions of the Harem; while it was home to the Sultans concubines and/or wives, it was not an area of decadent sexuality. The term Harem come from Arabic and translates as forbidden or sacred, not glorifying eroticism that the term has taken in the western world. The original meaning was more about the everyday life, with all of the women and children living there.

Also we learned that some sultans strictly enforced a code of silence throughout the palace, the only form of communication was through sign language. I was trying to imagine what the Palace grounds would be like if they were silent, then I was surrounded by a new wave of people and a new wave of languages and got distracted. Then I thought that if I was actually around at the time I would be restricted to only being in the Harem and I wondered if the code of silence could be or would be enforced in that exclusive area.

As our time at Topkapi Palace ended the clouds started to part we headed off to a wonderful relaxing backyard barbeque hosted by Erginoğlu and Çalişlar Architects. Were we had good food, good company, and for the first time that day, some space.



Greeted with our first cool and breezy day, the forecast set the tone for a seemingly fitting afternoon beneath Istanbul’s ground floor.  Our first stop was to the Basilica Cisterns in the Old City of Istanbul. The Cisterns were built in the 6th century during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I. Following its construction in the year 532, the Cisterns rested under the Stoa Basilica in which it was used to store water for the Great Palace and surrounding infrastructure.  After passing the two armed guards at the door we started our 40 foot descent to the depths of the 105,000 square foot expanse of columns, water, and darkness. I could only imagine the refuge the space would have for tourists during a humid summer afternoon, might even be worth the entrance fee itself.  Let’s be honest, the entry fee is not for the cool temperatures of the space. If you get claustrophobic don’t worry, you will be just fine here.  The expanse of columns and lights were truly a remarkable experience which was further amplified knowing you are beneath such vibrant Turkish street life. For as many people that filled the Cistern, it was still eerily quiet underground, even as if we had left the city.

Having been restored three separate times, the Cisterns had once been thought of as dumping grounds for all sorts of waste, sometimes even corpses. Fortunately for us the Cisterns are now home to lively tourists, knee deep water, and small schools of carp.

Emerging from the Cisterns brought me back to reality. Trams screeched by, tourist’s eyes were glued to maps, and street vendors approached like seagulls on an open bag of Doritos. The Cisterns were an amazing opportunity to step back and be fully immersed into the deep and rich history this amazing city was built on. It was moments like this that allowed me to escape the distractions of car horns, the thick scent of roasted meats, and flocks of humans. This experience helped to shape things I’ve read in a textbook or seen in a Google image search and truly bring it into perspective. It’s the sensual experiences that truly shape the identity and experience of the Basilica Cisterns. In this particular case it was like entering a new world, one completely different than that of four stories above.



The daily commute in Istanbul is an experience that underscores how important the public transportation infrastructure is in this city of over 17 million (unofficially 20+ million). The ride on the tram to Topkapi Palace started with all 39 of the combined MLA, BED, BS, BDA students, and fearless instructors descending the mountain that leads from our studio workspace to the Tophane tram stop where I could already feel my world closing in around me.

These aren’t the heritage tramlines as many will see in romanticized images of Istanbul, but modern machines that move hundreds of thousands of people a day (this is just the trams alone, the numbers when including the metro, buses, ferries, and the funicular is almost overwhelming). Rush hour on public transportation has been completely redefined in my world. We got into a tram that would already be considered “full” by American standards and I thought for sure everyone in Istanbul was already on my train. I was sorely mistaken. At every stop (of which there were 10 between our boarding platform and final destination) three times as many people would get on as off. I was amazed at the ability for people to somehow shrink into the walls of the cars, magically reducing their body mass in an instant to allow five people to fill the same amount of space that was once occupied by one individual.

The public transportation in Istanbul has an amazing number of riders: over 300,000 per day on the T1 line that we were riding alone. My daily utilization of these public amenities has shed light on some of the strong points and shortcomings that exist in the overall capacity and connections within and between the public transportation in Istanbul.

I can only imagine the larger issues that would play out within that built environment if it were not for the public transportation system in Istanbul. If the development patterns in this city followed that of the United States the highways and interchanges that would be needed to move this many people by automobile would destroy the tightly woven urban fabric of Istanbul. The use of vertical integration with the metro lines and the funicular as well as the shared street space for the tram lines provides for maximum utilization of space.

However, there may be some shortcomings within this very well used system as there is an obvious threshold during rush hour where the tram is so full, people waiting at the stop can not even get in the doors. It would be interesting to understand through further research and analysis diagramming whether the addition of new/more cars in most places would alleviate some of the transportation pressures as the population begins to plateau or if there is still a need for massive transformation projects that add entirely new lines that not only increase capacity but liberate even more of the population from relying on automobile transportation for commuting.I am continually amazed at how remarkably clean that the trams and public transportation are, here in Istanbul. There is no graffiti or the lingering unidentifiable smells like one may find on a New York City subway; these beauties are spotless.