Summer is the time I think most about mortality.
The feeling funnels slowly at first, trickling into each lengthened day of sun and sand. But as the boredom sets in, so too does the anxiety. Every mosquito bite is a brush with death, every UV ray a messenger of melanoma.
So, after a day of walking through Istanbul’s sunny cobblestone streets, I was pleased to descend into subterranean darkness. The Basilica Cistern had just opened for the first time in five years, and I could feel it beckoning me from below.
Marble columns rose from stagnant waters, their Ionic and Corinthian capitals rounding into ribbed arches. One behind the other, they stretched on for what seemed like an eternity, drawing closer together as they neared their vanishing point.
Darkness gave way to cavernous crimson, reds melting into slippery teal. The water offset rectangles formed by the brick; it need not move to disorient and distort. Under the polychromatic lights, I became unsure of the metal grates beneath my feet. As I stared at a synthetic hand rising from the water’s surface — fingers bent, unfurling from a fist — I found myself shrouded in darkness again.
The Basilica Cistern once supplied the Great Palace of Constantinople, dating back to the year 532. Many of its 336 columns herald from Greek and Roman temples, sturdy and splendid as they sustain the archways. Now, this ancient, underground world intermingles with works of modern art. Contorted corpses twist through vacant space. Luminescent jellyfish hover above the waters, their metal wires refracting beneath.
As the room faded to black, features assumed a voltaic glow. Details appeared one way in blue, another in red; what once soothed was soon ablaze. As much as the cistern was a journey through history, it was also an experiment in form. As my vision adjusted, the space shapeshifted before my eyes.
The dark, symmetrical archways both revealed and concealed. They obscured angles and opened through space. I’d turn a corner and stumble upon a new shape — I almost didn’t notice Medusa’s head glaring at me sideways and upside down, frozen in stone like her victims.
As I circled back around the cistern, my eyes landed on an eroding human form, almost unnoticeable in its matte gray color. Its head and arms were already worn away, corroded along jagged edges. Small, pinpointed holes dotted its torso as though dissolving from the inside out. Immediately, I felt drawn to the distorted elegance. The piece was younger than its surroundings, but it looked as though it had been weathered by time.
“It is about re-living many works left behind by the destructiveness of time with today’s perception away from their original purpose,” read a small, transparent plaque, identifying the piece as “Remember Tomorrow” by Berkay Bugdan. “Finding a renewed meaning and life without hiding what cannot be taken back by entropy.”
Someone I once knew told me he loved the concept of entropy — the idea that the universe continually grows more disordered. I told him I wanted something that lasts; I wanted to write because it was a way to preserve myself in time. Perhaps I was being naive, but I was grasping onto permanence in any way I could.
As I stared at the ancient columns, rigid and magnificent in the shifting lights, I envied their ability to survive the centuries, to invoke some stillness. But simultaneously, I realized that, even when things are fixed, they never really stay the same.
Even as I walk through the arches of history, I will never step foot in the city of Constantinople, never drink the water from the cistern, never see the Greek and Roman temples in their original form. Modernity entwines with history in strange and messy ways. Marble lasts, but appearances change.
I cannot help but admire that modest human form, silently disintegrating in the stillness. It does not resist inevitable change: Instead, it surrenders to chaos with twisted grace. Even in cosmic disorder, a lasting, mortal beauty remains.
As the illuminated rouge faded back to black, “Remember Tomorrow” escaped my view. I thought about living life like that, humbly yielding to the passage of time. Though the idea scared me, it also gave me a sense of relief. It’s one thing to fear; it’s another to just be.
I let out a sigh and headed toward the exit, drawing my gaze upward and stepping back out into the midday sun.