Basilica Cistern

View of the Basilica Cistern in Istanbul

Among the thousands of beautiful historical landmarks in İstanbul, Basilica Cistern(Yerebatan Sarnıcı), known as Cisterna Basilica, feels just like if you are visiting somewhere with a soul. In the middle of a historical open-air museum, Sultanahmet Square, Basilica Cistern has its place.

In Istanbul, there is no other closeted cistern that is bigger than Basilica Cistern. Basilica Cistern is a real-life example of how something that was built to serve a purpose, still can be this dazzling and charming, with so much to tell you. It is also referred to as Basilica Palace because it reminds you of a palace you. 

There are hearsays about the construction of the cistern, claims such as seven thousand slaves were responsible for the construction. The Cistern was built in Byzantine, with the order of I. Byzantine emperor Justinianus’ times to meet the city’s water needs and to store water. Basilica Cistern was discovered after hundreds of years of the conquest of Istanbul, by the fishermen. Now, it only serves as a museum and hosts some events now and then.

This article is aimed to comprehensively explain Basilica Cistern and its related domains.

Visiting the Basilica Cistern

Even though some cisterns have an open-top, Basilica Cistern is a closeted cistern and that is why it is on the underground. You need to descend a few stairs, 52, to be more specific, to get there. It has a magnificent and mysterious architecture. As you walk in through the Basilica Cistern, you will see a large area just above the water with lots of carp fishes. It almost feels like you are walking on a bridge above an ocean because you cannot see your surroundings very well. There are many columns there but three of them stand out: the tear column and the columns that have Medusa heads underneath them. The lightning is very dim, and it adds a mystic vibe to the cistern. Its length is 140 meters, and its width is 70 meters long. The cistern has 332 columns that are approximately 4,8 meters apart from each other. Wandering around those marble columns feels just like you are in a part of a palace. The surface that you walk on might be wet due to the evaporation of the water underneath it and drop from the ceiling, be careful while walking around.

For restoration purposes, the water level in the Basilica Cistern is sometimes intentionally lowered down. If you want a full experience with the full water level in the cistern, make sure that you are not visiting during restoration times to not get disappointed. In addition, with lower down water levels, unfortunately, Basilica Cistern is not as glorious as with full water level.

If you do not have the opportunity to visit Basilica Cistern in real life, some websites offer you an online exploration of Basilica Cistern with 3D and panoramic views.

How do you get to the Basilica Cistern?

Basilica Cistern is located in Sultanahmet, where the Sultanahmet Square and Sultanahmet Mosque are also located. You may go there by using the tram, bus, taxi, or your car. In the Kabataş-Bağcılar tram that you can take from many central spots in Istanbul (Kabataş is 15 minutes walking away from Beşiktaş and Taksim, you can take the tram from Eminönü and Karaköy too) has a station named Sultanahmet/Blue Mosque, you can prefer to stop there, the Basilica Cistern is very close to the station.

If you are in Beşiktaş and feeling a little adventurous, you can take the steamboat to Eminönü or Karaköy and then take the tram to Sultanahmet.

If you are close to Sultanahmet but you do not want to walk, you may use the electric scooters that you can find pretty much everywhere. You just need to download the app “martı” and write your information. This way you can enjoy the city view without experiencing the crowdedness of the tram and other public vehicles.

Visiting hours of the Basilica Cistern

You can visit Basilica Cistern everyday between 9:30 AM and 5:30 PM. However, it opens at 13:00 on the first day of religious holidays as an exception.

Entrance Fee of the Basilica Cistern

If you are a Turkish citizen the fee is 15 Turkish liras, for foreign national visitors, it is 30 Turkish liras, which is equivalent to around 4 U.S dollars according to current currency. You need to buy the tickets from the door of the Basilica Cistern.

If you are a Turkish citizen who is a teacher or a student, the entrance fee is 5 Turkish liras. If you have a child or children under the age of 8, entrance fees do not apply to them. It is free to visit Basilica Cistern for children who are under 8 years old.

Best time to visit the Basilica Cistern

The most popular day to visit Basilica Cistern is on Sunday, around 3 P.M. Since the cistern is under the ground and there is no sunlight available, your time of choice will not affect the view or the pictures you will take. You might want to arrange your time in a way that the cistern will not be very crowded.

How long to spend in Basilica Cistern

People usually spend up to 1 hour in Basilica Cistern, yet this period may change according to your purpose to visit. 45 minutes is recommended.

Health warnings about Basilica Cistern

There is extreme moisture in the Basilica Cistern due to the evaporation of the water. If you have breathing difficulties and/or asthma or any kind of disease regarding the respiratory system, you must consult your doctor before visiting Basilica Cistern. Besides, as mentioned before, the floors might be wet. So, please make sure that your shoes are not slippery.

What was the Basilica Cistern used for?

Basilica Cistern was used as a water tank. It was originally built as a second water tank for the city after the first one burned down. Even though İstanbul’s 3 sides are filled with water, drinkable water was hard to find and they needed that kind of cisterns for meeting their water needs as a city. A cistern is typically used to restore water, and this is how Basilica Cistern is used for.

History of the Basilica Cistern

As mentioned earlier, Basilica Cistern emerged as a result of repairing and restoration of formerly existing cistern getting major damage and being repaired and restored after a fire that occurred in a close area. The cistern was built by Byzantine emperor I. Justinanus. In some periods of history, it was possible to use a boat in Basilica Cistern. After the Byzantine emperor Justinanus moved out from his palace, the cistern was closed for hundreds of years. Moreover, above the cistern’s surface used as a residential area for a long time, they built houses there. Later, in the 16th century, it was found by Byzantian historian Pierre Gilles while he was researching a close area that was about ancient writings. He realizes that there is a hole on the ground and houses around the hole get their water from there. He becomes curious about it and investigates the situation. By that investigation, Basilica Cistern comes to the daylight one more time.

In the Ottoman period, due to a belief that still water is not good, the Basilica Cistern was only used to water the garden of Topkapı Palace. Basilica Cistern exposed to restorations in the periods of III. Ahmet and II. Abdülhamid, respectively. In time, the houses above the cistern were eliminated one by one. The cleaning and repairing period has started and lasted for over 3 years. Later, the fishes that now you may go and observe have been put into the water in the cistern. In the year 1987, Basilica Cistern opened to visitors and has been a host for numerous international events since then.

Who is I. Justinianus?

Justinianus is a Byzantine emperor who ruled Byzantine between the years 527-565. Some historians refer to him as the last true Roman emperor. He is the last emperor that knows Latin. His name before being an emperor was Flavius Petrus Sabbatius Iustinianus. He was the nephew of the Rome emperor Justin. He made a change in the law by marrying a lower-class woman: Theodora. Actually, Theodora was a prostitute. Justinianus is the one who organizes the Rome laws, which are the basis of today’s civil law. Also, Justinianus is the one who built Hagia Sophia.

Moreover, there is a disease called Justinanus. The plague epidemic that reached the city in May 542 during the foundation celebrations of Constantinople is known as the Plague of Justinian. In Justinian’s period, Constantinople got back it is power, and the Rome Empire has stepped into the recovery process. It is safe to say that I. Justinianus was a pioneer in many areas of life, considering the situation at that time, he was ahead of his time.

The architecture of the Basilica Cistern

The Basilica Cistern is a successful combination of Ancient Greek architecture and Byzantine architecture. Basilica Cistern is quite large; specified as 140m x 70m with a 9 meters depth. Covering an area of ​​9800 square meters in total, the cistern has a water storage capacity of approximately 100,000 tons. Bricks were used in the making of the floor and the walls. Both walls and the floor are made waterproof with the Khorasan mortar. 

There are a total of 336 columns with 9 meters in length each in the cistern, some of them are made of concrete pay. In a restoration, a 30 meters long wall needed to be built and this led to some columns to be not seen (40, to be specific). The distance between each column is not precisely equal, yet it has an average of 4 meters. The columns are 9 meters long and some of them are made Corinth style and the others are made Dor style. Some columns are processed, some columns are not. The column bases are in the form of Attic style bases, marble blocks, pedestals, and Medusa heads according to the way they are processed.

Medusa heads in the Basilica Cistern

Medusa, one of the most popular characters in Greek mythology, has a place on the Basilica Cistern. The most popular and the most wondered place in the Basilica Cistern is the place where there are 2 Medusa heads. Medusa heads are placed on the northwest side of the cistern, on the underparts of the columns. There is no precise information about how those two Medusa heads were brought and placed in there, but it can be inferred that those heads were not made to put there, instead, it was taken from another building.

Upside down medusa in basilica cistern, Istanbul

Why are Medusa heads upside down?

According to the legend, if someone or something made eye contact with Medusa, they or it will be turned into a stone. Both Medusa heads are placed in reverse and lateral positions; because according to a legend Medusa’s feature of petrifying the person she looks at disappears when she is in an upside-down or lateral position.

Another legend about Medusa heads being upside down is that about religion. Some say that, because those Medusa heads were put there by Christians, they put them upside down so that Muslims will not offend by thinking that they are image gods and being worshipped. At that time, this issue was very important.

Who is Medusa?

Medusa is a Greek mythology character who is one of the three sisters known as the female monsters, famous for her snake hair and her petrifying feature as you look in her eyes. Even though she is prototypically known as a villain, stories about her support that she was the victim in the first place. There are various legends about Medusa.

Legend 1 about Medusa: Athena, Poseidon and Medusa

 In one of them, Medusa is not born with petrifying features and snake hair. Instead, she was a gorgeous girl with incredible beauty. She has two other sisters, and she is the only one that was born as a mortal being. Poseidon, the god of the seas, falls in love with her. And Athena by time gets jealous of her beauty and all the attention she gets, especially from Poseidon. Poseidon likes that Athena is jealous of Medusa and wants to make her even more jealous. Poseidon has sexual intercourse with Medusa without Medusa’s permission, in other words, he rapes her in Athena’s inn to make Athena jealous. Later, Athena interprets this situation as disrespectful behavior of Medusa (even though she is the victim here) and decides to punish Medusa for this.

Medusa Head in Basilica Cistern

She decides that an appropriate punishment for her is to become ugly so that no one will look at her. Actually, she wants no one to ever look at her again. So, she gives Medusa a feature: a feature to petrify everyone and everything that looks at her. Even this does not feel enough for Athena and she decides that Medusa needs to be killed. Later, Perseus murders Medusa with Athena’s command by cutting her throat.

Legend 2 about Medusa: Medusa’s Love Story

According to another legend, Medusa is born with snake hair and petrifying features. She is again, the only mortal one among her sisters. Even though everyone is frightened of her including gods and goddesses, Poseidon is not afraid of her; instead, he loves her and falls in love with her. They get married and Medusa gets pregnant. In this legend, Athena envies Medusa again. She decides that Medusa needs to be killed. She gives Poseidon a command to kill her. Poseidon kills Medusa in his sleep, with their children in her womb. He cuts her throat, and from the blood that drops to the floor, their children are born.

Some say that Medusa’s dead body is buried in the Basilica Cistern.

Crying column in the Basilica Cistern

Among all of those columns, one column stands out especially. In that column, there are carved patterns of peacock eye, drooping branch, and tears. Besides the patterns, this column is different from the others by being wet. It is indeed looking like it is crying due to its properties, and it is also as known as a “tear column”. According to a legend, this column is made as a memorial for the slaves that died during the construction of the Basilica Cistern. Behind this column, there is a pool named “wish pool”. According to another legend, if you throw a coin there while making a wish, your wish will come true. Some say that individuals who work at the Basilica Cistern collect those coins as a tip, but this information has not been confirmed yet.

Basilica Cistern in popular culture

With its mystical vibe, historical value, and beauty, basilica cistern is not only tourists or visitors’ favorite. This historical beauty attracts the attention of many names in the art and film community. Some popular movies have scenes taken from the basilica cistern, such as James Bond’s third movie Skyfall. Besides, there are music videos, photoshoots, and other activities are being done in the Basilica Cistern.

Moreover, movies and music videos are not the only social media tools that use Basilica Cistern. Some popular video games among teenage boys also take place in Basilica Cistern. One example of those games is “Assassin’s Creed Revelations”. Again, Basilica Cistern was most probably chosen because of its mystic, mysterious and magical nature, which is optimal for this kind of game.

Further information and tips

If you are visiting Basilica Cistern, most probably this is a part of a big Sultanahmet tour. Visiting Basilica Cistern after visiting surrounding landmarks is recommended. Because Basilica Cistern has a calming, resting vibe and you will not get tired while exploring there. After exploring big, gorgeous palaces your eyes will be rested with the beautiful dim lights of the basilica cistern.

You are not allowed to take photos with flash at the basilica cistern. And the lightning is not optimal for a quick photo shoot. Taking a high-technology device that can take good pictures without perfect lighting or flashlight is highly recommended.

Do not forget to bring some coins with you to make a wish in the wishing pool. Explore the Sultanahmet well, eat traditional and street foods, visit souvenir shops there, pet the cats, and enjoy the sun- if you are visiting it in summer or spring.

Get ready for your eyes being burned due to excessive light after being exposed to such a dim light for a long time. A pair of sunglasses would help your eyes to not hurt when being exposed to sunlight.

Other old cisterns in İstanbul

Of course, there are a lot of other cisterns in İstanbul which were made hundreds of years ago, and most of them are from the Byzantine period. Even though none of them are lucky enough to become as famous as Basilica Cistern, they are still part of history and might be a little bit overlooked next to Basilica Cistern. There are nearly 100 old cisterns in İstanbul. 

Binbirdirek Cistern

Binbirdirek means one thousand and one poles, in Turkish and it is the second-largest cistern in İstanbul after Basilica Cistern. Like Basilica Cistern, this cistern is also near Sultanahmet square. It is located under a Rome palace, Antiochus. Interestingly, this cistern is older than Basilica Cistern and was named Philoxenias. It was restored by the emperor who built the Basilica Cistern, I. Justinianus. In contrast to Basilica Cistern, this cistern is not open to visitations, yet it occasionally hosts some events, although not often. Another important feature of the Binbirdirek Cistern is that it inspired some important stories in the 17th century.

Theodosius Cistern

Another cistern is “Theodosius Cistern”, (in Turkish “Şerefiye Sarnıcı”). Foreign sources refer to this cistern as Theodosius because it is the name of the Byzantine emperor that built it. It is thought to be the oldest cistern on earth, with an approximate age of 1600. It was built to store, keep, and meet the water needs in the period of II. Theodosius. Construction work was completed in 15 years. The cistern was opened to visitors in the year 2018, and since 2019 they perform a live concert every Saturday there.

Theodosius Cistern, Istanbul
Theodosius Cistern

Nakilbent Cistern

Like any other cistern, Nakilbent Cistern was built to meet the city’s water needs. Naklibent Cistern has been open to visitors since 2005, and it is located next to the Naklibent Mosque. Today, the cistern hosts exhibitions and preserves its historical and cultural value. It is free to visit the Nakilbent cistern. It is also located in Sultanahmet square.

Aetius Cistern

Unlike the others, this cistern is not in Sultanahmet. Aetius Cistern is different from the other cisterns in another aspect too, it is not located underground, it has an open-top. It was used as a truck farm in the Byzantine period. There are only 3 cisterns with open tops in Istanbul and Aetius Cistern was one of them before transforming into a football field. It lost its importance in the Ottoman period, and now it is used as a football field. It is known to have a large area.

Sultanahmet Square

As mentioned before, many old cisterns (including Basilica Cistern) are located in Sultanahmet Square. This square has great historical value. If you are planning to visit Basilica Cistern, exploring Sultanahmet Square in the right way is strongly recommended. Also, there are many souvenir shops and restaurants in Sultanahmet Square that can enrich your cultural and historical adventure. These are some of the important features of Sultanahmet Square:

  1. Sultanahmet Square was originally a hippodrome. Lots of art, musical, entertainment activities were being conducted there.
  2. A fountain that was a gift from the German, also as known as the “German Fountain”
  3. The Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet Mosque), which was built by I. Ahmed. The architect of this mosque is Sedefkar Mehmet Ağa. Even though it was built by Germans, the architecture of the fountain is under the influence of Islamic architecture.
  4. Hagia Sophia is the biggest church in İstanbul that is made by eastern Romanians. Now it is used as a mosque.
  5. Archaeology museum.
  6. Topkapı Palace. Its construction started right after conquering İstanbul, in 1460 and ended in 1478. It is an architectural masterpiece that needs to be seen and explored.
  7. Hagia Irene Church is a historical landmark that served as an orthodox church for many years. Some sources refer to this church as “Saint Irene”
  8. Gülhane Park is the oldest park in İstanbul.
  9. Dikilitaş, also known as “Obelisk of Theodosius”. Some sources say that this piece was brought to İstanbul with a special ship that has been made especially for this reason.
  10. Haseki bath (Hamam) is in front of Hagia Sophia and is now used as a carpet and rug exhibition.
  11. Serpent column, which was built by I. Constantinus. This column consists of three intertwined snake figures.

Conclusion

If Basilica Cistern had a mouth to tell you stories, you would be amazed yet it does the job without even talking. With its amazing architecture, mysterious legends, creepy and mystic vibe, Basilica Cistern is worth to be seen next to all the other landmarks in Sultanahmet Square.

İsmail Çamönü

Hi! I am Ismail. I am a digital nomad from Turkey. I lived in many cities around Turkey during my life and I am passionate about traveling. At Nomad's Guide to Turkey, I share travel tips for nomads, expats, and tourists who would like to visit Turkey.

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