Photos By Elif Savari Kızıl
Steeped in thousands of years of history, Istanbul is home to all kinds of eccentric underground treasures. Let us expand your subterranean horizons in Istanbul by taking you on a trip to three little-known locations buried deep in the soil of the city.
Many curious visitors to Istanbul have asked, “What happened to the Byzantine palace?” In one of Istanbul’s typically eccentric twists, it was not an archaeologist but a carpet-seller who eventually unearthed part of the structure—first used as the senate building, later as a philosophical school and throne room—that is Magnaura Sarayı (Magnaura Palace).
To be blunt, this spot is not for the faint-hearted. Entering the garden behind Nakkaş Halı shop and Palatium café, you will see an area paved with glass, with two metal staircases leading down on either side. Follow the staircase on the right: a full 10 meters below ground level, a brick wall holds a small door that opens into mysterious shadows. If you’re feeling nervous, the owner’s sign might not reassure you: “Dear guests, while you are visiting this facilities our company is not responsible from any injury, accident and lost items [sic].” Luckily, our intrepid writer has explored and lived to tell the tale.
Through the doorway, you will find a brick chamber with high arches and beehive-like domes, as well as doors leading into further darkness. The structure’s ragged condition adds to the feeling of a lost civilization, concealed for thousands of years—no one knows what further excavation might uncover. When Fatih Sultan Mehmet took Constantinople in 1453, he is rumored to have quoted the Persian poet Ferdowsi: “The spider spins his web in the palace of the Caesars.” Magnaura is a reminder that all empires, no matter how glorious, will be covered by the sands of time.
How to get there
Magnaura Palace is close to the Hagia Sophia, right beside the Four Seasons Hotel. Entrance is free, and you can visit any time from 11am to 1am. Kutlugün Sokak No.33, Sultanahmet; T: 0543 844 54 13
While some Byzantine structures were abandoned, others were repurposed by the Ottomans. The Karaköy neighborhood’s Yeraltı Camii (Underground Mosque) is one of the latter. Entering from the street, you will follow a short tunnel downwards to a space filled with thick pillars and illuminated by electric light. Unlike the open plan of most mosques, the pillars here create small private areas—and because of the low ceiling, the minbar (raised pulpit) is only two meters tall.
The mosque’s alternative name, Kurşunlu Mahzen Camii (Gunpowder Store Mosque), points to its earlier origins as Kastellion Tower. This Byzantine fort supposedly held the giant chain that blocked enemy ships from entering the Golden Horn; after its destruction by the Ottomans, the lower floor was used as an armory.
The fortification’s journey to Islam is another story. Muslim generals’ desire for the city began with Muhammad’s saying, “Verily you shall conquer Constantinople. What a wonderful leader will her leader be, and what a wonderful army will that army be!” In the first Arab siege, a soldier called Süfyan bin Uyeyne was imprisoned in the dungeon of Kastellion Tower, where he died of torture. It wasn’t until the 1750s that a Sufi dervish started having dreams about Uyeyne’s resting place, and with the support of Sultan Mahmud I the ancient dungeon became a mosque around the martyr’s tomb. Accessed through a side door off the prayer space, this tomb begins underground and stretches up into an octagonal tower, allowing natural light to shower down. Beside the turbaned grave is a well—it is here that Uyeyne prayed for a miracle and received holy water from the ground.
How to get there
Yeraltı Camii can be reached via Kemankeş Caddesi, one minute’s walk from the Karaköy ferry pier. The mosque is open to visitors outside of prayer times. Kemankeş Caddesi No.23, Karaköy
Ottoman Bank Museum
We now travel forward in time to the creation of the Imperial Ottoman Bank. Starting as a British venture in Istanbul, the bank was soon adopted as the official state bank of the Ottoman Empire. In accordance with its increase in capital, the bank needed a grander and safer location—for this reason the Imperial Ottoman Bank moved its headquarters to the aptly named Bankalar Caddesi (Banks Street) in 1892. Though the building is now used by the SALT art foundation, the fascinating history of the bank is maintained on the ground and basement floors as the Osmanlı Bankası Müzesi (Ottoman Bank Museum).
As you approach uphill from Karaköy, the aesthetic of Bankalar Caddesi shows how much the Ottomans had changed since their early days at Topkapı Palace—the tall, columned buildings here could have been designed in London or Paris. In fact, the Imperial Ottoman Bank was designed by French-Turkish architect Alexander Vallaury, using the mixture of neo-Classical and neo-Orientalist styles that he also employed at the Pera Palace hotel. However, our underground experience begins at a metal door marked “Samuel Chatwood of London”—this was the safe manufacturer who built the bank’s financial fortress.
Inside the door, you will discover a steel chamber with steps leading down to another basement level. The barred rooms underground, similar to prison cells, were home to the bank’s gold reserve—this treasure weighed 13 tons (worth 1.5 million TL, in the money of the time). Far from the light and noise of the everyday world, you can imagine the power of an empire concentrated in this man-made cave. Also look out for the rare Ottoman banknotes on display, with writing in French, Turkish, Greek, and Arabic, printed in London.
How to get there
Visitors can easily walk to the Ottoman Bank Museum from Karaköy or the Galata Tower. The museum is open Tues to Sat from 12pm to 8pm, and Sun 10:30am to 8pm. Entrance is free. Bankalar Caddesi No.11, Galata; T: (0212) 334 22 00