Istanbul is unique. It is the only city in the world where two continents meet. Enjoy old and new in the cultural capital of Turkey with Istanbul expert Marc Guillet

Basilica Cistern, romantic and mysterious

Posted on 6 August 2011

Basilica Cisterne. Photo: Slawomira Kozieniec

Just beneath the surface of the old districts of Istanbul there are surprising things to discover. One of the most well known tourist attractions is the underground reservoir just across the Aya Sofya. It is called the Basilica Cistern, because of its presumed location underneath the Roman Ilius Basilica which stood here.

The Cistern was giant holding tank for water that had been piped in from outside the city walls by means of a series of aqueducts and tunnels that ran from the Belgrade Forest, 25 kilometers/16 miles away.  Byzantine emperor Justinian I in 532 had it built to supply water for his palace and other buildings on the First Hill of Constantinople.  When full it would have been able to hold some 80 million liters of water.

In Turkish its name is Yerebatan Sarayı (Submerged Palace), a very suitable name because this wonderful structure actually resembles an underground palace with all its 336 marble columns.

The Basilica Cistern featured as a location for the 1963 James Bond film “From Russia with Love” with Sean Connery as the fictional MI6 agent James Bond who is sent to assist in the defection of Soviet consulate clerk Tatiana Romanova (Daniela Bianchi) in Istanbul to the West.

Visiting this 1500-year-old underground world is romantic and mysterious in itself, but even more so due to the atmospheric music and lighting.

One of the intriguing phenomena of this structure is to see that recycling is nothing new. They re-used old material to built new things in the old days as well! Look at the columns. It is obvious that they were brought here from many parts of the Roman Empire. Probably from old temples or other buildings. They are different in shape, in material and topped with different capitals: Doric, Corinthian and Ionic.

Head of Medusa. Photo: Slawomira Kozieniec

Other proofs of this ancient recycling method are two column pedestals with bas-reliefs in the shape of  heads; one of them is said to be that of Medusa. They were obvious not used as decorations as one of them is upside down and the other is on its side. Besides, when the cistern was filled with water, the heads were completely inundated.

It is a great place to visit. Water still drips from the ceiling and tinkles in the dank shadows as it has for centuries. When you want to escape the dust and the chaos and noise of Istanbul or the summer heat go to the Basilica Cistern.

Further reading:

You can find much more on the city’s underground attractions in the book “The World Beneath İstanbul” by Ersin Kalkan.


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