Basilica Cistern

Yerebatan Sarnici

Being in Istanbul in summer, it seems that there is no place where it is possible to escape the heat of the sun. In fact, this wonderful place is situated right in the center of the city, opposite the church of Hagia Sophia. The Basilica Cistern is the most famous, perfectly preserved and mystical ancient subterranean water cistern. This cool place can not only save you from heat, but also provide you with new interesting historical information. Cistern means "reservoir" in Greek, which is why the museum is called so – the Basilica Cistern.

It is interesting to notice that there are now more than 40 cisterns under Istanbul, but most of them are closed for public, as archeologists think that it can better preserve the constructions. The building of the cistern started during the reign of Constantine I in 306-337 and finished only under the rule of Emperor Justinian in 532. Huge water-supply is believed to have been reserved in the cistern just in case there was a drought or a siege of the city, as well as to provide the Great Palace of Constantinople with water. Water was delivered here by water-pipes and aqueducts (including the Aqueduct of Valenta) from water sources in the Belgrade forest 19 kilometers away from the city.

The cistern most probably got its name from the predecessor of Hagia Sophia, the basilica of Saint Sophia. You can notice that the Basilica Cistern vaguely resembles a palace, and in Turkish its name means "sunken palace". The ceiling of this majestic construction is supported by a forest of 336 columns, each 8 meters high. The 4-meter wide walls are made of hearth bricks. All the columns are unique as they were brought here from various antique churches. Two of the columns use marble blocks with the visage of Medusa Gorgon, the origin of which is unknown. One of the blocks is inverted upside-down and another is turned sideways. There are numerous versions about that. One says that it was done for the people not to be scared of being petrified after looking into the monster’s eyes. Others believe that this way they expressed defiance of pagan symbols and a desire to completely get rid of them. With time the cistern was neglected and very much polluted. It was discovered by accident, when someone noticed how local people were getting water through holes in the floors of their own houses.

The cistern was opened for public as a museum in 1987. It is now beautifully illuminated from the inside and the level of water is 40-50 centimeters. The cistern is featured in famous films, such as a James Bond film "From Russia with Love" and A. Konchalovsky’s "The Odyssey". The major events in Dan Brown’s "Inferno" happen in the cistern too. There are also numerous legends connected with the cistern. Travelers from the whole world throw their coins into the "Pool of Wishes" hoping their dearest desires to come true.

Address: Alemdar Mh., Yerebatan Cad. 1/3
Opening hours: daily 9 am – 5.30 pm (winter schedule), daily 9 am – 6.30 pm (summer schedule)
How to reach: Sultanahmet (TR1)
Coordinates: 41.008378, 28.977878