With just two days in the city we needed to choose carefully which sights we’d be taking in. Our hotel in Istanbul was in the Sultanahmet District close to The Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace so they were all high on our sightseeing list and maybe a boat trip on The Bosphorus if we had the time. But there is another attraction that has intrigued me since I first heard about it – The Basilica Cistern and the part it has played in keeping the city supplied with water since the 6th century.
We descend the 55 steps into the gloom and it’s deliciously cool after the city’s midday heat. Amber lighting illuminates the 336 marble columns, their height elongated by the reflections in the shallow water. Haunting music echoes around the cathedral-like chamber and accompanies the steady drip, drip of water from the arching 30ft ceiling. It’s eerily fascinating.
The Basilica Cistern or, Yerebatan Sarnıcı - “Sunken Cistern” in Turkish, is the largest of several hundred ancient cisterns that lie beneath the city. This massive underground water container, its walls over 4m thick, was built during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I in 532 and ensured that first Byzantium, then Constantinople and ultimately Istanbul were kept supplied with water.
The cistern, which is 143 meters long and 65 meters wide, could hold up to 80,000 cubic meters of water – that’s enough to fill 27 Olympic-sized swimming pools! Most of the water was collected from the Belgrad Forest and other areas outside the city and transported partly via the 971 meter-long Valens Aqueduct, most of which still exists today. The Basilica Cistern is just a small part of a complicated system of aqueducts, water towers, canals and fountains which fed the city.
In this subterranean world the 9 metre high columns glow in the darkness; a mixture of Doric, Ionic and Corinthian pillars spaced at four-meter intervals, and arranged in 12 rows of 28 columns each. We make our way through the towering pillars along a raised walkway dodging the droplets falling from above whilst carp swim in the gloomy shallows beneath the boardwalk.
Towards the back of the cistern in the far left-hand corner are two impressive, carved Medusa heads used as column bases; oddly one is positioned upside down, the other placed on its side. Medusa is one of the three Gorgons, female monsters of the underground world, with the power to turn people to stone. Some say the carvings are placed on their side to stop their gaze turning onlookers to stone, others that it is so that they are the right height for the columns. I guess the latter is true since the heads were probably reclaimed from another Roman building and not ‘made to measure’. Having said that I did dare to gaze and am still here to tell the tale!
In 1545, while researching Byzantine antiquities in the city, Frenchman, Peter Gyllius was told that people in the locality obtained water by lowering buckets through holes in their basements and sometimes even caught fish this way. Curious to know more he entered via a stone staircase in the back yard of a house and the cistern was re-discovered. After clearing out 50,000 tons of mud, rubbish and allegedy some bodies the Cistern was restored and Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality opened it to the public in 1987.
Open hours are between 9:00am and 11:00pm and entrance fee is 6 Euros or 10TL and the small entrance is located 150m southwest of the Hagia Sophia opposite the yellow building of the Tourist Police in Sultanahmet – look out for the signs. There is usually a queue here but a visit is worth the wait.