The Basilica Cistern: An Ancient Subterranean Wonder

Beneath Istanbul's vibrant streets lies the Basilica Cistern, an awe-inspiring architectural marvel from the 6th century AD. This vast underground reservoir, supported by 336 majestic columns, once supplied water to Constantinople's Great Palace.


Introduction: Unraveling the Mysteries Beneath Istanbul

Beneath the bustling streets of Istanbul, a city that has witnessed the rise and fall of empires throughout the ages, lies a subterranean wonder that encapsulates the city's rich historical tapestry - the Basilica Cistern. Also known as the "Yerebatan Sarayı" or "Sunken Palace" in Turkish, this awe-inspiring ancient reservoir stands as a testament to the ingenuity and architectural prowess of its creators.

Discovery and Origins: A Magnificent Undertaking

The Basilica Cistern was constructed during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I in the 6th century AD. It was commissioned as a part of the larger Basilica Palace complex, intended to supply water to the Great Palace and other structures within the ancient city of Constantinople, present-day Istanbul.

Historians believe that the cistern's construction was a response to the need for a reliable water supply system due to the rapid population growth of the city. With its strategic location at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, Constantinople's population surged, putting a strain on the existing water resources.

Architectural Marvel: The Magnitude of the Cistern

The Basilica Cistern is an architectural marvel, boasting dimensions that are truly impressive. Measuring approximately 138 meters long and 64.6 meters wide, the cistern covers an area of over 9,000 square meters. Its capacity is estimated to have been around 80,000 cubic meters of water, making it one of the largest ancient cisterns in Istanbul.

The cistern's design reflects the architectural finesse of the time, with 336 columns supporting its ceiling, arranged in 12 rows of 28. These columns, mostly recycled from older structures and salvaged from various ancient ruins, showcase the resourcefulness of the Byzantine builders.

The Medusa Heads: Gazing into the Past

Among the many intriguing features of the Basilica Cistern, the Medusa heads stand out as enigmatic symbols of ancient mythology. The two column bases, each featuring a Medusa head, have been subjects of fascination and speculation.

The origin of these Medusa heads remains shrouded in mystery. Some theories suggest that they might have been placed there intentionally, representing a precaution against evil spirits, while others believe that they were merely reused as filler material during the construction, as was common in ancient times.

The most captivating theory is that one of the Medusa heads was placed upside down and the other sideways, symbolizing the defeat of Medusa by Perseus, and preventing her gaze from turning anyone to stone. These mythical depictions add an aura of mystique to the cistern, leaving visitors to ponder their significance.

Historical Significance: Witness to Change

Throughout its existence, the Basilica Cistern has experienced numerous historical events, surviving the tests of time and bearing witness to significant changes in Istanbul's political and social landscape.

During the Byzantine era, the cistern played a crucial role in supplying water to the Byzantine emperors and their opulent palaces. However, as the Byzantine Empire declined, the cistern's importance diminished, and its true location was eventually forgotten by the general populace.

Rediscovery and Restoration: A New Beginning

In the mid-16th century, a curious traveler named Petrus Gyllius rediscovered the Basilica Cistern while researching ancient Byzantine monuments. He was intrigued by the underground structure, describing it in his works, and his accounts eventually led to its official re-discovery.

In the years that followed, the cistern underwent several renovations and restorations, including efforts to clear the accumulated silt and debris from its depths. The Turkish authorities recognized its historical significance and made efforts to preserve and showcase this hidden gem to visitors from around the world

Weeping Column: Tales of Sorrow and Redemption

Another captivating feature within the Basilica Cistern is the "Weeping Column." This column, also known as the "Hen's Eye" or "Peacock-Eye Column," is said to weep tears of sorrow for the vanished grandeur of Constantinople.

Legend has it that the column represents the grief of thousands of slaves who toiled to construct the cistern. One can observe the column's base, which appears to be moist with tears, and the locals believe that those who touch the column's tears will be blessed with good luck and a safe return to Istanbul.

Modern-day Marvel: A Tourist Attraction

Today, the Basilica Cistern stands as an enchanting tourist attraction in Istanbul. Visitors are drawn to its serene atmosphere, wandering along the wooden walkways that crisscross the cistern's dark waters. Soft lights illuminate the colossal columns, creating an ambiance that transports visitors to a distant time, reflecting on the grandeur and splendor of Constantinople.

Conclusion: An Eternal Relic of Istanbul's Past

The Basilica Cistern is a timeless reminder of the historical layers that lie beneath Istanbul's bustling streets. As visitors explore its depths, they are transported back in time to an era of Byzantine magnificence and imperial grandeur. The medusa heads and weeping column add an air of mystery and intrigue, leaving us to ponder the secrets they may still guard.

As the years pass, the Basilica Cistern continues to stand strong, an enduring testament to the resilience of human ingenuity and the indomitable spirit of Istanbul, a city that bridges the gap between ancient heritage and modern dynamism. Preserved with care, this subterranean wonder will continue to captivate the hearts and minds of those who venture into its enigmatic depths.

Thank you for delving into the captivating history of the Basilica Cistern with me, discovering the secrets of the Medusa heads and the Weeping Column. Until we embark on our next historical journey together, stay curious and explore the wonders of the world!