Basilica Cistern

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History of Basilica Cistern

Since Istanbul has always been the crown jewel of powerful states in all ages of history. Byzantine and Ottoman emperors had cisterns built in many parts of the city to meet the water needs of the people during the endless sieges. The Basilica Cistern was built in 532 by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian. After the Ottomans conquered Istanbul, they used the cistern for a short time to irrigate the gardens of Topkapi Palace. However, they set up their own water facilities because they think that the water they will use should be in a flowing state in order to be healthy, not stagnant like in the cistern.

Basilica Cistern of Istanbul
Basilica Cistern of Istanbul

Information About Basilica Cistern

The Basilica Cistern is located in the historical peninsula of Istanbul, near Sultanahmet Square. It is also referred to as the largest closed cistern in Istanbul. It is possible to go down to the Basilica Cistern through an entrance located at the corner of Hagia Sophia. This place was built with support columns and the ceiling is made of bricks. The cistern is descended with a 52-step stone staircase. Upon entering the Basilica Cistern, you come across a forest of columns. Most of the columns here are made of a single piece of marble. There are 336 columns and every column of the Basilica Cistern is 9 meters in length. 100 thousand tons of water can be stored in Basilica Cistern. Basilica Cistern, which is among the most popular touristic spots of Istanbul, can also host different concerts in our present day.

Medusa Pedestal in Basilica Cistern

The two Medusa Heads used as pedestals under the two columns in the northwest corner of the cistern are among the masterpieces of Roman Period sculpture art. It is not known from which structures in Anatolia the Medusa heads were taken off and brought here. These Medusa heads attract the most attention of the people visiting the Basilica Cistern. According to a legend, Medusa was one of the three Gorgons, the mythical female monsters of the underworld in Greek mythology. Of these three sisters, the snake-headed Medusa had the power to turn those who look in her eyes into stone. According to one view, Gogona design and statues were used to protect large structures and private places at that time, and this is why the head of Medusa was placed in the Cistern. But another theory suggests that when the city of Byzantium was converted into Christianity and the city became Constantinople, people started to convert or destroy remnants of the old mythical beliefs. That’s why Medusa’s heads were carried into the underground cistern where they will be away from the people and specially placed upside down for showing how powerless the old gods became.

A column with an upside-down Medusa head base in Basilica Cistern of Istanbul

Weeping Column of Basilica Cistern

Weeping Column in Basilica Cistern of Istanbul

A column inside the cistern is distinguished from the others by the rumors about it. This column is shaped with reliefs and carvings of peacocks, drooping branches, and tears. This column is known as the “weeping column”. According to rumors, 7,000 slaves worked during the 38-year construction of the cistern, and hundreds of them lost their lives, and this column was erected in their memory.

Faith of Basilica Cistern Today

After Istanbul became an Ottoman territory, Basilica Cistern was used for a while. However, due to the construction of the more modern water system in the city, it lost its former importance. It has been learned that the people of the house draw water and even catch fish with the buckets they hang down from the well-like round holes on the ground floors of the houses around Hagia Sophia. Basilica Cistern was rediscovered in 1550 by Dutchman P. Gyllius, who was doing research for Byzantine ruins. Today, after hundreds of years spent in the dark, it has turned into a historical place where songs are sung and 21st-century people experience fascinating moments.

Basilica Cistern In The Movies

The Basilica Cistern had previously appeared in the films “The Water Diviner” by Russell Crowe about the Gallipoli War and “Skyfall” from the James Bond series. Some scenes of the movie, which is adapted from Dan Brown’s novel “Inferno”, were shot in the Basilica Cistern too.

Entry Fee and Visiting Hours Of Basilica Cistern

The Basilica Cistern is open to visitors seven days a week. Basilica Cistern opens at 13.00 on the first day of religious holidays such as Ramadan. The entrance fee to the Basilica Cistern is 80 TL for adults, 30 TL for students and teachers, and 450 TL for foreign tourists.

Visit Basilica Cistern With Professional Tour Guide

Mazes of Basilica Cistern which are made of columns are fascinating. There are many more details that can be left in the dark waiting for you to be discovered. Contact me to learn more about the Basilica Cistern of Istanbul and to hire a professional, licensed, English-speaking tour guide in Istanbul and in Turkey. See you soon, Hasan Gulday.

Hasan Gülday

Hasan Gülday. Professional licensed tour guide working in Turkey.

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