We’ve made the most of the four days in Cuenca, the hub of Ecuadorian art and culture. On the absolute top of my list of sights are three fantastic churches we visited. Each offered a distinct experience and was meticulously preserved.
I’ll begin with the largest of all, the Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepción or the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, more commonly called the new Cathedral. Cuenca a city made for walking and its only fit that two of the major churches, this one and the older Iglesia del Sagrario are located across each on opposite sides of the pretty Park Calderon that functions as the old city’s main square.
Despite the massive brickwork walls that you see of the Cathedral as you walk around the city, nothing really prepares you for its sheer size. It reminded me instantly of the Byzantine churches like Aya Sofya that I’d seen in Istanbul. And I wasn’t very wrong, for Juan Batista Stiehle, the German Friar who drew up the plans for this Cathedral was certainly influenced by Byzantine and Romanesque styles. The main altar seemed to be more Baroque revival though, perhaps borrowing from the Baroque School of Quito, which in turned emerged from the extreme skill that native Indian communities had in working wood and metal.
The cathedral is relatively new. Construction only began in 1885 and went on for a hundred years or so. The story goes that when it first threw its doors open, it could accommodate 9000 people, in a town of 10,000! Beyond its grand scale, certainly its most dominant feature, of special note are the beautiful stained glass windows designed by Spanish artist Guillermo Larrazaba, who was invited to Ecuador for this assignment and then made the country his home, going on to design stained glass in prominent churches across the country.
The most exciting part of our visit to the New Cathedral was the climb up the tower to the top to see the beautiful domes clad with blue Czech tiles. The climb also sharpened our appreciation for the exquisite brickwork that still holds this magnificent structure together so well. The view of Cuenca from above, with its characteristic red tiled roofs, was a bonus!
The last memory of Istanbul was also the most magical. A few hours left to leave, our bags packed and waiting, we decided to look for the Basilica Cisterns. Rumored to be in Sultanahmet, the area we had made our home for the 6 days in Istanbul, we had to walk around before actually locating this obscure gateway and were only able to find it thanks to a tour group operator trying to get his 45 people in through a narrow opening.
The Basilica Cisterns are a massive subterranean chamber built in the 6th century to store water to supply Istanbul city, then a most remarkably populated center for trade and commerce and the capital of the mighty Byzantine Empire. This is the largest of several such cisterns built by the Byzantines. The credit for this one goes to Emperor Justinian I.
With the proportions of a cathedral, the cisterns measure about 140 meters by 45 meters. Some 336 marble pillars, built in the typical Ionic and Corinthian styles, support its roof. A 4-meter thick waterproof firebrick wall keeps the water safely held. At the peak of its utility, the cisterns held an astonishing 80,000 cubic meters of water, which was transported into it via aqueducts from forests some 20 kms away!
Even with hardly any water in it, it was cold and damp, with the pillars and ceiling sweating droplets of water. The floor was slippery and it felt really eerie in the darker parts. Quite a fantastic experience for those of us who have spent many happy childhood days buried in strange mystery books. They also added spooky music to enhance the ambiance!
Restored several times over and most recently by the Istanbul municipal corporation, the cisterns stand as a testimony to man’s urge to urbanize and his ability to create infrastructure to sustain urban life. As an urban professional, I was inspired to see the remarkable feats of engineering and water management that have truly survived the test of time. At the same time, I was reminded of the bitter disappointments and frustrations of providing our modern cities with amenities as basic as water and sanitation.
Here are some images of the magical Basilica Cisterns. Forgive the blurs; these were taken with very little light and no tripod.