The Basilica Cistern - History and Facts | History Hit

The Basilica Cistern

Alemdar, Marmara Region, Turkey

The Basilica Cistern is an underground wonder and one of Istanbul’s best Byzantine sites.

About The Basilica Cistern

The Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Saray) is a subterranean wonder and one of the greatest – and certainly the biggest – of Istanbul’s surviving Byzantine sites. With its imposing columns, grand scale and mysterious ambience, this subterranean site seems like a flooded palace, but it is in fact a former water storage chamber.

This site also features as one of our Top 10 Tourist Attractions in Turkey.

History of The Basilica Cistern

Built by Byzantine Emperor Justinian in around 532AD, the Basilica Cistern measures approximately 453 feet by 212 feet. It would have stored around 80,000 cubic metres of water at a time to supply the palace as well as the city of Byzantium. At the time, it was located underneath the square known as the Stoa Basilica, upon which a great Basilica stood, hence its name.

The Basilica was reconstructed by Illus after a fire in 476 AD, and would have originally contained gardens, was surrounded by a colonnade, and faced the Hagia Sophia, a Late Antique place of worship in Istanbul.

The cistern provided water for the Great Palace of Constantinople and other buildings on the First Hill, and carried on providing water for the Tokapi Palace after the Ottoman Conquest in 1453 and into modern times.

It has undergone lots of repair. These happened twice during the Ottoman State in the 18th century during the reign of Ahmed III, and then during the 19th century by Sultan Abdulhamid II.

Historical texts claim that around 7,000 slaves were involved in the construction of the cistern.

The Basilica Cistern Today

The Basilica Cistern was opened to the public in 1987. Today, visitors can explore the Basilica Cistern, treading its raised platforms to view its 336 engraved marble columns, enjoy its vaulted ceilings, and experience its eerie nature complete with dripping water and fish.

It is cathedral-sized, with most of the columns in the building appearing to have been recycled from the ruins of older buildings which were likely brought to Constantinople from various parts of the empire.

Amongst the highlights at the Basilica Cistern are two mysterious columns depicting the head of the mythological figure Medusa.

Historical artefacts discovered at the site are also on display and are well-captioned, and there are regular artistic exhibitions which take place on site.

Getting to The Basilica Cistern

From the centre of Istanbul, the Basilica Cistern takes a minute by car via Yerebatan Cd. It is a one minute walk via the same route. There is also an extensive public transport network which departs regularly from around Istanbul.

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