Basilica Cistern

Yerebatan Caddesi 13


The Basilica Cistern, located in the crowded Eminönü district of Istanbul next to the Hagia Sophia, was built to provide water for the city of Istanbul during the reign of Emperor Justinian I in the 6th century CE. This cistern is an underground chamber of 138 x 64.6 metres. The large space is broken up by a forest of 336 marble columns, which are aesthetically supported by strong  columns and arches. The ceiling vaults, known as Manastır Tonozu (cloister vault), are built without using a mould. The cistern is surrounded by a firebrick wall with a thickness of 3.5 meters and is coated with a special mortar to make it waterproof.

Originally, there was a stone-paved circle on the cistern. It was later broken by dense housing construction beginning in the Byzantine period continuing into the Ottoman period. The citizens who settled in the vicinity were provided with their daily water requirements from the large round well-like holes opening from the ceiling structure. In 1940, several of the structures built on and around the Basilica Cistern were nationalized and a neat building was constructed at the entrance of the Cistern by the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality. It was also exposed to a wide range of cleaning  process between 1985-1988. Thus dirty water and tons of mud were removed and a promenade platform was built in the cistern. After the cleaning process was completed, the two Medusa heads, masterpieces of the First Age Art of Statuary were used as pedestals at the bottom of the two columns in the northwest corner of the cistern. It is not known exactly when or for what purpose the were antique Medusa and Gorgon heads were brought to the Basilica Cistern.”

Located under a park, buildings and the streets, the Basilica Cistern is a cool (as in temperature) place to get away from the sun and heat.  As with most things it has become somewhat theatrical.  Specially considered lighting has been placed and soft music plays from speakers.  You can even dress in costume and have your picture taken or get some “fast food.”  The Cistern has an interesting history and was even forgotten about for many years (It was rediscovered when people were noticed getting water from holes in the floors of their homes).  Strangely, two Medusa heads are built into two of the columns in the back.  They were covered by water and mud for many, many years and a debate still rages about why they were used and why one was placed upside down and one on its side.  One of the pillars weeps like the one in the Hagia Sophia.  People insert their thumb in a hole and twist their hand 360 degrees to bring luck or to be granted a wish.


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