The many sights of Istanbul go beyond the usual mosques and museums. There is also a plethora of random sights as well, including the Basilica Cistern located across street from the Hagia Sophia. Basically, when it comes right down to it, this place is simply an underground water container. But boy, what an underground water container it is!
Built during reign of Emperor Justinian I in 532, the Basilica Cistern is the largest of several hundred ancient cisterns under Istanbul. It held between 80 and 100 thousand cubic meters of water! The water came from the Belgrade Forest, about 19km from the city. It was transported via two aqueducts, one of which you can see in Istanbul (Valens Aqueduct – 971m long). Apparently, historical texts claim that seven thousand slaves were involved in the construction of the cistern. The original purpose of the cistern was to provide water for the Great Palace of Constantinople, which doesn’t exist today. The Great Palace used to be located near the cistern – when you stand in the plaza facing the Hagia Sophia, the Great Palace would have been to your right, and it ran almost the length of the Hippodrome on your left. After the Ottoman conquest, the Basilica Cistern provided water to the Topkapi Palace.
After buying a ticket at the front office, there are 52 stone steps into the entrance of the cistern. Almost immediately, one realizes on huge benefit of visiting this place – a welcome break from the bright and hot sunshine! Inside, it is nice subdued lighting and rather cool temperatures. Once you reach the bottom of the 52 steps, to the right is a little café for those feeling peckish or thirsty. To the left is a rather bizarre opportunity for you to dress up in Ottoman costumes and get your photo taken.
Thanks to a huge 1985 restoration project, the Basilica Cistern is pretty impressive. Platforms direct you all around the space so if you’re thinking you can pull a James Bond and row a boat around the place (From Russia with Love), think again. There is still water, but only a few feet these days. But it is deep enough for some rather large fish who call the Basilica Cistern home!
The roof is supported by 336 marble columns, each 9 meters tall and spaced at 4 meter intervals. There are 12 rows of 28 columns each. With the low lighting, it looks pretty awesome. The most interesting corner is at the far end to the left, the northwest corner. Two giant Medusa heads, one upside down and the other on its side, can be found here. It is thought that they were recycled from another building dating from the late Roman period. Tradition dictates that the unusual positioning of the heads is to negate the power of Medusa’s gaze. However, more practical people say that it was probably done as such because they would have been the perfect size needed to support the columns under which they sit.
While the Basilica Cistern isn’t as flashy and colourful as many of the mosques and museums in Istanbul, it is worth an hour of your time to visit. You’ll get a break from the sun, you get to see an awesome piece of construction and engineering, and as you wander around Istanbul you’ll keep wondering if there is yet another random cistern underneath your feet!