Istanbul’s Mysterious Underworld

Continuing on our travels in Istanbul last August, we explore some of the ancient underworld and tasty rooftop treats of the Old City. For a recap of our time in this amazing city, check out our other posts: Cradle of Civilizations, Palace & Grand BazaarSüleymaniye & New Mosque, and Galata & Taksim.

After two nights at Antique Hippodrome, we were moved to another room. We had only booked the first two nights prior to arrival, but when we changed our outbound flight, we needed to add a few more. The downside of the new room was that it had only a fraction of the amenities as our first room, but the good news was it was US $10 less per night and we got to watch locals hang out and play Tawula (Turkish Backgammon) from dawn til late at night, in these cozy chairs (above).

After breakfast (at our favorite place, Kucuk Ayasofia Cafe, of course), we arrived at a nondescript little pump house to descend into Sultanahmet’s ancient underworld! We had read that the Basilica Cistern was one of the top sights to see in the Old City, but certainly didn’t expect this:

The Basilica Cistern (or Yerebatan Sarayı, meaning “sunken palace” in Turkish), is the largest of hundreds of ancient cisterns beneath the city. This particular cistern originally formed the crypt of the Stoa Basilica, built between the 3rd and 4th centuries. The underground chamber was later expanded and converted into a cistern  by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, with the help of 7,000 slaves. The cistern provided a filtered water source for the city’s elite up through the Ottoman conquest and into the 20th century.

In more recent times, the Basilica Cistern has appeared in the 1963 James Bond film, From Russia With Love, and 2009’s The International, though it is neither under the Russian/Soviet embassy nor beneath the Sultan Ahmed Mosque as the films suggest.

Hagia Sophia on a Saturday morning.

Freshly squeezed pomegranate juice and Turkish coffee, the drinks of champions…or at least Turkish people.

Restored mosaic floor dating back to the 6th century at the Great Palace Mosaic Museum.

Eye-catching row of buildings in Sultanahmet.

Sokollu Mehmed Pasha Mosque, which was unfortunately closed for prayers when we arrived.

A friend suggested that we check out the Seven Hills Restaurant rooftop. We had no problem at late morning on a Saturday getting a table with a stunning view. Entrees were a bit out of our budget, so we opted for coffee and dolmas instead.

The Blue Mosque, as viewed from the rooftop of Seven Hills Restaurant.

After three days straight of sightseeing, we were ready for a break. Luckily, we came across Palatium Cafe on Kutlugun Sk. in Sultanahmet. We enjoyed relaxing with a cup of coffee and our devices, catching up on emails, etc., for the next 45 minutes — at which time I decided it was time to look for a toilet. And that’s when things got a little bit weird…

How could I possibly have known that my simple desire to relieve myself after a long day of coffee and water chugging would lead on an adventure back into the underworld beneath the streets of Istanbul??? As one ancient passageway led to another, I seriously started to question what the barista back up in the land of the living had put in my drink. Seriously.

I looked up at one point and thought I could see where Lori was sitting and called out, with no success. I probably should have turned back, but something kept telling me to push on. I’d like to say that it was my unyielding sense of adventure…but really, it was just my bladder.

The unmistakable aroma of freshly ground coffee eventually led me back to the coffee shop’s plush couches and droning trance music, where a well-marked sign led me to the toilets, just feet away from where Lori and I had been sitting.

When I saw Lori again, she wondered where I had been. When she saw the look on my face, she became even more worried. After what seemed like an eternity, I finally composed myself and managed the words:

“Lori…there’s…a…this…uh… Follow me!”

We can’t say enough about Doy Doy Restaurant on Sifa Hamami Sk. There’s a restaurant on the ground floor, but what you’re really looking for is on the roof! It is a phenomenal local joint and one of the best deals around. We probably would have eaten dinner here every night if our list of ‘must-eats’ hadn’t been so long. We got the iskander kebap, which was a delicious, generous portion of heaven. And the view of the Blue Mosque wasn’t too shabby, either…

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