Culture, Travel


Cisterns have been built in the Mediterranean region for over 7,000 years. They not only served as water reservoirs, but were also able to keep the drinking water fresh and clean for months. Therefore, they were mostly built in dry areas where the water requirement could not be sufficiently covered by wells. They were also built in fortresses as an emergency water supply, so the inhabitants were not thirsty in a state of siege. 

Istanbul, with its large population has over 70 of these cisterns remaining, probably all from the Byzantine era. The Basilica Cistern, (Turkish: Yerebatan Sarnıcı underground cistern or Yerebatan Saray underground palace) is the largest of these and also the only one that is still open to the public today. Located in the historic Sultanahmet district, 150 meters southwest of Hagia Sophia, it owes its name to the location on which it was built. Above it was a large public square that originally housed a basilica built during the early Roman period as a center of commerce, law, and arts.

When Emperor Constantine (306 – 337) made what was then Byzantium his headquarters, he renamed the city Constantinople and laid the foundation for the most magnificent and largest urban center in Christianity of its time, which immediately required an adequate water supply. The project he planned was finally realized by Emperor Justinian I (527- 565) 200 years later. 

Fifty-two stone steps descend into a vast underground vault the size of a cathedral, measuring approximately 138 by 65 meters  with a capacity of 80,000 cubic meters.
The water required for this was transported from the Belgrade forest north of Istanbul via aqueducts 19 km long.
The ceiling was supported by cross vaults and semicircular arches supported by 336 marble columns.
The 9 meter high pillars were arranged in 12 rows of 28 each, quite an engineering feat.
The capitals of the columns are mainly Ionic and Corinthian in style, with a few in Doric style.

The majority of the columns come from the ruins of older buildings brought to Constantinople from different parts of the empire. They are made of several types of marble and granite, the same material used in the construction of Hagia Sophia in 360 AD to commemorate Emperor Constantine (306 – 337). After the Ottoman conquest in 1453, the last emperors left the palace and the water system slowly fell into oblivion. It was only rediscovered by accident in 1545 when the Dutch traveler Petrus Gyllius was exploring Byzantine ruins in the city.

Even after its discovery, the Ottomans did not initially treat the underground palace with the respect it deserved. The first repairs took place only in 1723 by the architect Muhammad Agha of Kayseri. The second major repair took place during the reign of Sultan Abdulhamid II (1876-1909) and was henceforth used as a water supply for the nearby Topkapi Palace.

Cracks in the masonry and damaged columns were repaired in 1968, with an additional restoration in 1985 by the Istanbul Metropolitan Museums, removing 50,000 tons of mud. On September 9, 1987, the cistern was opened to the public in its current state. Wooden walkways were laid out so that visitors would visit the palace on foot, replacing the previous rowing boats. Special lighting systems were also installed to create a magical atmosphere, accompanied by soft classical music.

One of the main attractions of the Basilica Cistern are the two ancient heads of Medusa, a female-faced monster from Greek mythology. These form the foundation for two of the pillars. Interestingly, the heads are turned, which has given rise to much speculation as to the background. Most likely, however, when erected at the time, the heights of the columns were not uniform and had to be leveled, with the workers using suitable fragments that were available to them.

Today, the Basilica Cistern is no longer used as a water reservoir, but is representative of an impressive architecture of bygone times. It also served as an impressive film backdrop for numerous films. The first film shot here was the 1963 film adaptation of Ian Fleming’s eponymous novel James Bond 007 – From Russia With Love. 

The article was first published in the Issue 21

Related articles


THE LOST CITIES FROZEN IN TIME In 79 AD, one of the greatest natural disasters of antiquity, which still captivates people, occurred in their spell, the outbreak of Vesuvius in Italy. The...

Digital Issues

Mediterranean’s unique and all-encompassing magazine.
Created in the Mediterranean. Enjoyed all around the world.

Our issues are timeless throughout the year, therefore they are not numbered by seasons, but by numbers.