Istanbul’s Mystery – The Basilica Cistern

Deep underground below Istanbul lies the Basilica Cistern, a 1500 year old piece of history and a standing testament to the power of building and engineering before the age of machines. The Cistern was used as a water reserve for the city and its palaces during the Byzantine empire and now, more than a millenia later, it’s still possible for tourists to make the trip underground and see the Cistern for themselves.

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Probably one of the most beautiful and understated attractions in Istanbul.

No-one really knows when the Cistern was first built, but it takes its name from a Basilica that once stood above the ground where it lies. Historians have suggested that the original structure may have been commissioned by Constantine himself, before being expanded to its current size and state by Emperor Justinian in the 6th century. It’s held up by 336 columns of varying design, all thought to have been brought in from the ruins of even older buildings across the empire, and it is still filled with the very water that emperors once used to drink.

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Although I’m guessing it tastes a bit fishier now than it did back then…

After hugely expensive renovations, the cistern has now been fully unearthed and low-lighted walkways make a path through this massive cavern. Before the 1980s you used to have to get around it by boat, just like James Bond did in From Russia With Love (yeah, not so Russian after all, I guess) – a much more interesting method of transport if you ask me. Bring it back, please, Turkey! For just 10TL, it’s easily one of the cheapest sights in Istanbul and well worth a visit, even if you just use it as an excuse to get away from the blazing sun! Being underground, it’s always wonderfully cool – and being just off Sultanahment Square, you don’t even have to go ten steps from the main attractions to see it.

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The reason I liked the cistern so much was because it was a visible example of Turkish history. Despite its incredible reputation, I felt like Istanbul actually had less history to offer than I had expected, with much of its fame lying in buildings, people and empires that are long dead and gone. Istanbul, for me, was more about the feeling and the stories than the history you could physically reach out and touch – until I visited the Basilica Cistern.

It’s dark, it’s cold and it’s even sort of quiet, with something about its still waters and echoing walls inspiring visitors to talk in whispers. It’s a world away from the Istanbul above the surface (despite the novelty ‘Cistern Cafe’ sitting in a corner under the stairs…), which gives you plenty of time to reflect on all the years that have gone by in the world above it, while the Cistern has simply sat here, unchanged, for a hundred lifetimes. Even though the palaces it served have long since been either vacated or destroyed, the Cistern has never been lost to the world – for years after the end of the empire that created it, local people made holes in the floors of their homes and lowered buckets to pull up the Cistern’s water for their own supply.

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Seriously.

And it’s far more than the rather unflattering name of ‘Cistern’ would have you suspect (I’ve got to be honest – I was expecting some kind of giant toilet at first). This isn’t just a boring underground pit full of water and some pillars – it’s a cathedral-like hall with a high ceiling and ridiculously effective mood lighting. Today, it’s sometimes used for underground concerts and classical music events, the water and the huge, empty space lending itself well to impressive acoustics.

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And here I was thinking mood lighting had to be tacky by default. Well done, Istanbul – you might have been wrong with the cafe, but this was a pretty epic view.

It’s full of intriguing little details, like the single pillar carved with tear drops, possibly a memorial to the many slaves who died in the building of this underground palace (for that’s what it looks like, really – a palace, not just somewhere the city used to dump its water, and its name in Turkish, Yerebatan Sarayi, even means the sunken palace). There’s also the two Medusa heads at the base of two pillars right at the very back of the Cistern, one upside down and one lying on her side. Why? Has Medusa been employed to protect the Cistern – and if so, why place her the wrong way around? One argument is that she simply fits the pillar better that way, but I’m sure a bunch of normal bricks would have done the job just as well if that’s the case.

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The Medusa heads are just the Cistern’s little mystery. What about the biggest mystery of all? Why does it look like an intricately designed palace when no-one would ever have seen it, when its function was hidden from the sight and mind of all in Constantinople? And if you were going to build a giant underground reservoir, why on earth would you make a huge portion of it out of limestone, a rock that dissolves upon contact with water – not only destroying the building’s support structure but also possibly contaminating the water a whole empire relied upon? Why does it need two Medusa heads protecting it from intruders? And how, with its pitted and damaged limestone columns, is it still standing today, 3000 years later, if it really has always been full of water?

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One of the pitted limestone columns.

Nobody knows, and you know what? That’s the best thing about it.

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5 thoughts on “Istanbul’s Mystery – The Basilica Cistern

  1. Great photos. Thanks. But why do you say this is part of Turkish history? The glory and utility of this Cistern served the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) emperors and was basically forgotten after the fall of Constantinople, to the Turks, in 1453.

    1. Hi there, thanks for the comment! Sorry for the confusion – I was making a generalised comment in that it is part of the history of the country and land mass which has today become Turkey, not suggesting the Cistern wasn’t Roman or was built by modern-day Turkey, but I see how that simplification goes too far.

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