Basilica Cistern is a marvelous monument of ancient Byzantine architecture in the historic center of Istanbul. This huge underground structure stored water for the imperial Grand Palace.
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Video: Basilica Cistern
The existence of this colossal underground structure is not known to all travelers hastily visiting Istanbul on their way to the Mediterranean Turkish resorts. Meanwhile, the Basilica Cistern is literally under the feet of tourists exploring the Ayia Sofia, the Blue Mosque, and other famous structures in the historic center of the city.
Fortunately the existence of a secret underground reservoir was not known to the Ottomans who captured and mercilessly destroyed the city of Constantine in 1453. It is very likely that the surviving defenders of Byzantium spent their last days here. Subsequently, the cistern was discovered and it supplied water to the palaces and gardens of the Turkish sultans before being abandoned and turned into a giant underground garbage dump. Only in 1985 the underground was cleaned up and turned into a tourist attraction. Today this monument of Byzantine architecture is under state protection. The Basilica cistern is included in the list of outstanding buildings of the cultural heritage of the Greco-Roman civilization that developed in Constantinople.
View of the Cistern in natural light Descent into the Basilica Cistern
History of the underground cistern
In 20s of IV century on a hill in the center of Constantinople grandiose building has developed. A huge pit appeared in the market square. Basilevs Constantine Great has enjoined to create in capital of empire the huge underground reservoir intended for supply of palace constructions and hundreds thousand inhabitants of city. Chronicles tell us that 7 thousand builders worked here. A many kilometers long aqueduct that pumped water from the surrounding mountain springs was built for the strategic site. A part of this arched aqueduct made of sturdy Roman bricks still crisscrosses the streets in the center of today’s Istanbul. Two hundred years later, during the reign of Emperor Justinian I, the Basilica Cistern was fortified, enlarged and slightly rebuilt.
The Column of the Eye of Hen.
Greek historian Procopius of Caesarea who lived in the 6th century described in detail the Constantinople cistern in his treatise “On Buildings” which has survived to our time. Even then, the structure astonished by its scale and perfection of engineering technology.
Strangely enough, after the fall of Constantinople, the Turkish rulers of Istanbul for several decades knew nothing about this huge underground, although locals even caught fish there, and often threw in the sinkholes garbage. However, they believed that there was an underground lake under the streets of the city. Only two generations later, in the middle of the 16th century, the cistern was discovered by the traveler Pierre Gilles, who was guided by an ancient description of Procopius of Caesarea.
It is known that during the reign of the Ottoman sultans, the underground reservoir was repaired several times. The large-scale repair was carried out in 1723, by order of Sultan Ahmed III. Another reconstruction was carried out under Sultan Abdulhamid II, at the end of the XIX century.
In the mid 80’s of the last century, the city authorities of Istanbul decided to clean the Basilica Cistern. From the underground was extracted 50 thousand tons of dirt and debris, which had accumulated over the centuries. There were found artifacts which have filled up the Istanbul museums and also some skeletons of the people who have become victims of terrible crimes which have remained unpunished.
In May 1987 the ancient dungeon was opened to all comers. Berths for boats, which were used to take tourists, were built there.
The appearance of the cistern.
Over the past thousand and a half years, nothing has changed in the dungeon. The mighty brick walls of the reservoir, 4 meters thick, were impregnated with a layer of waterproofing mixture based on resins. By the way, Byzantine waterproofing is reliable to this day, and the secret of the water-resistant mortar has not been revealed. Researchers believe that the builders hammered millions of chicken eggs into the lime mixture. The walls form a rectangular basin measuring 140 by 65 meters, outlining an area of 9,800 square meters. Up to 100 million liters of water could be stored here.
The ceiling of the Basilica Cistern is reflected in the water
The sturdy vaults of the Basilica Cistern are built in the technique of multiple cross-shaped domes and arches, and are supported by a forest of marble and granite columns 9 meters high.
Curious travelers will want to examine the endless rows of 336 columns with capitals, executed in various classical Greek and Roman styles, indicating the different eras of their creation. Several pillars of Doric order with cannelures were carved for unknown monuments erected several hundred years before Christ.
The columns were taken here from ancient temples and structures destroyed on the orders of Christian bishops, triumphal arches glorifying ancient “wicked” rulers and heroes. In the northwest corner of the Basilica’s cisterns are the most famous of these – two columns with perfectly preserved relief images of the head of Medusa the Gorgon. Interestingly, the faces of Medusa are carved at an angle that excludes a direct look of the monster in the eyes of the audience, because according to legend this monster was capable of turning a man into a stone statue. According to architectural historians, the statues were removed from the facade of a public building from the late Roman period. Signposts will lead you to the Medusa.
Columns with the head of Medusa at the base
Several of the columns are engraved with stylized eyes and tears. Ancient chronicles claim that these signs were carved in memory of the many slaves who died during the grandiose construction.
The Basilica Cistern has now been turned into a museum. The columns are beautifully illuminated, there is soft instrumental music, you can hear the measured drops and murmuring of flowing water. In the glare of light between the columns swim fish, and on the marble bottom flicker coins, which by tradition are thrown into the water by tourists. Sometimes concerts and cultural events are held in this huge room with good acoustics.
The Basilica cistern in cinematography
The mysterious interiors of the Basilica Cistern, resembling a huge half-submerged cathedral, served as the perfect setting for episodes of many famous motion pictures. In 1963 here were filmed dramatic actions of one of the films about the adventures of Agent 007 James Bond – “From Russia with Love”, where the ancient reservoir is presented as a secret basement of the Soviet embassy in Turkey.
Mystical columns with the image of Medusa play the role of one of the keys of the message-puzzle in Dan Brown’s world bestseller “Inferno.” The Cistern was the setting for the film adaptation of this novel in the 2016 Hollywood blockbuster.
There are other man-made underground reservoirs from the ancient period available to tourists in Istanbul. One of them, the two-story Philoxenus Cistern (4th century), is located west of the Hippodrome, near the Constantine Forum, with its entrance located at 4 İmran Öktem Sokak Street. Its vaults are supported by 224 columns of marble and have interesting images on them.
In 2018, after being cleaned and restored, the Theodosius Cistern, built in the first half of the 5th century, was opened for viewing in the historic Fatih district. This small reservoir served only to supply water to the imperial palace and irrigate the gardens surrounding the royal residence.
According to archaeologists there are many more such structures in Istanbul, but their access is blocked by urban development and underground utilities.
Hours of operation and tickets
A visit to the Basilica Cistern is available daily from 09:00 to 17:30. On Muslim religious holidays the museum opens at 1:00 pm.
The entrance fee is 10 Liras.
How to get there
Basilica Cistern is located in the central district of Istanbul, within the vast historic Sultanahmet Square. The entrance is located opposite the Ayia Sofia Cathedral at Yerebatan Caddesi, 1/3.
Entrance to the Basilica Cistern
From Ataturk Airport, it is convenient to take the metro to the center. In addition, it is the fastest and cheapest way. The way to the station in the arrival terminal is marked by brightly colored signs. The fare card can be purchased from an automatic vending machine. Change money in advance in a currency exchange office, the machine accepts bills up to 20 lira.
There is a red metro line at the airport. Go seven stops to “Zeytinburnu” station, then take a train on the blue line and after 16 stops get off at “Sultanahmet” station. During the trip you can see several areas of Istanbul – part of the subway train route exits the underground tunnels to the surface.
It is not convenient to get to Cisterna by bus from the airport – express trains bring passengers to Taksim Square, there you have to walk to the same subway, and continue in the subway.
From other parts of the city, you can get to Sultanahmet Square on the T1 line by streetcars.
Affluent tourists use cabs. The distance from the airport to the center of Istanbul is 24 km. The trip will cost about the equivalent of about 20 €. Experienced travelers are warning: Turkish cab drivers often cheat and can demand an inflated amount. Book a transfer in advance on the website KiwiTaxi, chauffeur will meet you at the airport and take you to the agreed fare.
Low fare calendar
Cisterna Basilica is surrounded by many remarkable structures from the Byzantine era and the Ottoman period. Many of them are included in the list of cultural heritage of UNESCO. Nearby rises the famous Cathedral of St. Sophia (VI century), which became a model for the erection of all subsequent Christian churches. While visiting the interiors of St. Sophia, pay attention to the variety of columns supporting the arched vaults of the temple. These structural elements were brought here from ruined ancient structures. In the same way Byzantine architects used ancient columns in the construction of the Cisterna.
Opposite are six minarets of another iconic structure that entered the annals of world architecture. This is the Blue Mosque, built in the early 17th century.
It is impossible not to pay attention to Istanbul Archaeological Museum. It contains about a million artifacts of all historical eras. Only on the exposition of the Museum of the Ancient East, which is part of this complex, you can spend a couple of days.
The Blue Mosque in Istanbul The interior of the Ayia Sophia Cathedral
Best Restaurants Nearby
There are several restaurants and cafes just steps away from the entrance to the Basilica Cistern.
Dubb Indian Restaurant with a view of the Ayia Sofia
The menu at Nars Brasserie features Turkish and Mediterranean cuisine. The dining rooms are located on four floors of the old building and there are tables on two viewing verandahs. Average bill for a full meal is around 250 liras.
Dubb Indian Restaurant offers exotic Indian cuisine. There is a varied menu for vegetarians and vegans. A meal for two costs around 80 liras.
Istanbul Ottoman Kitchen is renowned not only for its fine dining, but also for its artistic presentation. In addition, each guest receives a gift from the chef – a portion of french fries or spicy rice, a dessert or a drink. Dinner costs about 100 liras per person.
At Cafe Lokum order a nice cup of Turkish coffee. Have a seat on a sofa on the terrace and admire the monuments of Sultanahmet Square. Enjoy hot kebab and for dessert try the oriental baklava and Turkish specialty lukum that are very well made here.
Sura Design Hotel & Suites is a luxurious 5* hotel 100 meters from the Cisterna Basilica. In the room there is a mini-bar filled with drinks. Rates range from 435 to 1209 liras per night. Breakfast in the restaurant is charged separately.
A few blocks to the north-west is the Sura Hagia Sophia Hotel 5*, where each room has an individual interior design. The accommodation costs from 350 to 1285 liras.
Inexpensive you can stay in “Sultanahmet Hotel” 3*. The price for a double room ranges from 225 to 510 liras.
The Basilica Cistern: An underground mystery in Istanbul
Basilica Cistern is one of the most mysterious buildings in Istanbul and a subject of increasing interest for inquisitive travelers. This underground structure, built over 15 centuries ago, is located near the city’s famous Sultanahmet Square. Once it served as the main reservoir of Constantinople. Today the ancient building is a museum with many noteworthy objects.
The Basilica cistern goes deep about 12 meters. It can hold up to 80 thousand cubic meters of water. The walls of the structure are 4 meters thick, and a special mortar is applied to their surface, giving it water resistance. There are 336 columns, lined up in 12 rows, serving as the main support for the vaulted ceiling. The height of each of them is from 8 to 12 meters. Many researchers agree that the columns were not built specifically for the site, but were brought from other previously demolished ancient buildings.
From the photo of the Basilica Cistern in Istanbul, it is difficult to understand that this structure once served as a water reservoir: now the site looks more like an ancient temple than a water tank. That’s its mystique and tourist appeal. What you can see in the underground basilica and how to get there, we will consider in detail in our article.
A brief history
The construction of the Basilica cistern began back in the early 4th century during the reign of Emperor Constantine I. It was decided to erect the cistern on the site of the former Basilica of St. Sophia, which was destroyed by a major fire. That is why the cistern was given such a name. Some researchers believe that the construction involved at least 7000 slaves, many of whom died here. The construction of the tank was delayed for more than 200 years, and came to an end only in 532 during the reign of Emperor Justinian.
It is worth understanding that the cistern was built in the ancient era, and engineers of the time had to implement an incredibly complex work to build a water pipeline several kilometers long. The water flowed from the Belgrade forest through the aqueduct of Valenta and entered the cistern through the pipes of the eastern wall. The Basilica tank could hold up to one hundred thousand tons of water: such volumes were needed in case of an unforeseen drought or a military blockade of the city.
With the advent of the Ottoman conquerors in Istanbul in the 15th century, the cistern lost its importance. For a while its reserves were used to irrigate the gardens of Topkapi Palace, but soon by order of Suleiman the Magnificent a new water reservoir was built in the city, and the Basilica Cistern fell into disrepair and its existence was completely forgotten. In the following centuries, several European explorers rediscovered the ancient abandoned reservoir, but it did not arouse the slightest interest among the authorities in those years.
The value of the cistern as a historical monument was seen only in the 20th century. Then it was decided to carry out cleaning and restoration work inside its walls. Over hundreds of years tons of dirt accumulated in the cistern, so the restoration took quite a long time. As a result, the basilica was cleaned, its floors were concreted, and wooden coverings were installed on them for ease of movement. The official opening of the museum did not take place until 1987. Today in the Basilica Cistern in Istanbul you can also see water seeping out of the ground, but its level above the floor does not exceed half a meter.
What to see
First of all, it is worth noting the special atmosphere that reigns within the walls of the underground basilica. The subdued lighting and soft music, combined with the ancient architecture, create a kind of mystery and a feeling of being lost in the past. At the same time, the museum has its own attractions, which attract the most tourists.
Among the three hundred columns located in the cistern, one in particular stands out, dubbed the “weeping” one. Unlike the others, this column is decorated with patterns in the form of teardrops. In addition, it is always wet. These two factors are the reason for its name. Some believe that it was erected in memory of the slaves who gave their lives to build the reservoir.
Interestingly, one of the ornaments has a small hole, which, according to local legend, can help make your dreams come true. To do this you just need to stick your thumb in the hole, turn it and make a wish.
Tourists are even more curious about the two columns mounted on blocks with the face of Medusa Gorgon: one of the heads lies on its side and the other is upside down. These sculptures are considered the brightest representatives of Roman architecture. It is still unknown how they got into the Cisterna Basilica, but one thing is clear: they were transferred here from another ancient building.
There are several theories about this unusual position of the Medusa sculptures. According to one version, the builders deliberately turned the head so that the mythical character, known for his ability to turn people into stone, would be deprived of this possibility. Another theory, quite the contrary of the first, asserts that in this way they wanted to show their disdain for Medusa Gorgon. Well and the third, most logical option suggests that this position of blocks simply more suitable in size for the installation of columns.
Address: Alemdar Mh., Yerebatan Cd. 1/3, 34410 Sultanahmet Square, Fatih District, Istanbul.
Basilica Cistern opening hours: The museum is open daily from 09:00 to 18:30 during summer and winter season. The sight works on a shortened schedule on January 1 and also on the first days of the Muslim holidays from 1:00 pm to 6:30 pm.
Cost to visit: the price of admission ticket for September 2018 is 20 tl. The museum card is not valid on the territory of the complex. You can only pay for the ticket in cash.
Official website: yerebatan.com.
If you want to not only look at the attraction, but also learn as much as possible about Istanbul from a local, you can book a city tour. A selection of the best guides according to tourist reviews can be found on this page.
A historical site like the Basilica Cistern just can’t do without a few interesting facts, of which we have collected the most worthwhile ones:
- The walls of the Basilica Cistern have great acoustics, so symphony orchestras and jazz concerts are often performed here.
- The sight has more than once served as a movie set for world famous films. Several episodes of “The Odyssey” by Andrei Konchalovsky were shot here. The Bond film directors also noticed this place, and it appeared in the frames of the second part of the film “From Russia with Love”.
- American writer Dan Brown chose Cisterna Basilica as a key location in his novel Inferno.
- Many tourists believe the myth that the museum has water up to their chests, but in reality, in most of the area its level does not exceed 50 cm.
- Some sources claim that locals used to use the underground structure for fishing. Even today, carp, often referred to as the silent keepers of the cistern, can be found in some of the museum’s ponds.
- Outside, a police office and part of the tramway are now located above the tank.
- Next to the Weeping Column, there is a small pond called the Wishing Pool. Here you can also make a wish by throwing a coin into the water.
- It is noteworthy that the basilica is not the only underground building in Istanbul. To date, more than 40 different cisterns have been found in the metropolis.
On a side note: to look at Istanbul from above, you can visit one of the city’s observation decks. See where they are located in this article.
Visiting any tourist site requires careful planning and information literacy. Many tourists make a big mistake by not preparing in advance for the excursion. And in order for you to be able to avoid trouble during your visit to the cistern of Istanbul, we have collected for you the most useful tips from travelers who have already been there:
- Before you go to the attraction, be sure to find out if the building is undergoing renovation work. Some tourists, once inside during the restoration, were quite disappointed.
- As with any other historical monument, the cistern is crowded with people at the cashiers during the day. To avoid standing in lines, it is advisable to arrive early in the morning. Recall that the opening hours of the Basilica Cistern in Istanbul are from 09:00 to 18:30. Therefore, it is wise to arrive at the site by 09:00.
- The maximum time that is worth spending to explore the museum is no more than 30 minutes.
- For lovers of unusual photos: everyone is offered a photo session in the costume of a sultan at the entrance to the cistern. The cost of the event is $30.
- Currently this museum in Istanbul does not give out an audio-guide, so we recommend downloading it to your phone from the Internet beforehand. Otherwise, your entire tour will take no more than 10 minutes.
- Since the basilica is quite wet, you can slip and fall in some areas. Therefore, when you go here, it is better to wear comfortable non-slip shoes.
- Signs in the cistern warn tourists that photography is prohibited. Nevertheless, travelers have no problem taking pictures without any administrative consequences.
The Basilica Cistern can be a great addition to your tour of Istanbul. The mere fact that this structure is over 1,000 years old gives a good reason to visit the ancient monument. And to fully enjoy this attraction, don’t overlook our recommendations.
You will learn a few more interesting facts about the landmark by watching the video.
Author: Catherine Unal
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Very amazing and beautiful place. Spectacular massive columns, breathtaking when you enter this cathedral. There are mosaics, stained glass windows. It is more interesting with a guide. You can go upstairs, take a lot of selfies, but there are a lot of people. There are no words to describe all the feelings I had. Ayia Sofia is a must see.