The mysterious beauty of the city of Istanbul: The Basilica Cistern

No matter how you try to articulate it, words just cannot do justice to its beauty. The moment you set foot inside, you find yourself in a fantastic world. Row after row of historical columns take your breath away. The famed Medusa’s Head is one of the most beautiful historical pieces of the city of Istanbul.

The Basilica Cistern, the most romantic historical location of the Peninsula … This beautiful cistern is included in any touristic trip of Istanbul. This huge structure which carries you to a completely different, mysterious world the minute you step through the door, despite its modest outwardly appearance, is one of the rich historical treasures of Istanbul. The Basilica Cistern is the largest indoor cistern in Istanbul. The Yerebatan Cistern is the name given by the public due to the submerged stately marble columns… It is actually a covered cistern. A kind of very splendent water tank. As it is below the Stoa Basilica of the Roman era (a kind of religious structure) it is known as the Basilica Cistern. It was constructed by the then East Roman Emperor Justinianus 1. approximately 1484 years ago to meet the water needs of Istanbul. (It would be more accurate to say to meet the water needs of the area surrounding it, the large palace in which the emperor resided and the other residents in the area.) Water to this huge water tank was brought from the Belgrade Forest Egrikapi water ways 19 km away through two aqueducts. The first aqueduct was the 971 metre Valens (Bozdoqan) constructed by Emperor Valens in the year 368, while the second was the 115,45 meter long Maglova aqueduct constructed by Emperor Justinianus I.

Gardens of Topkapi Palace watered from here

The cistern was used for a period after the conquest of Istanbul by the Ottomans in 1453, and water was given to the gardens of Topkapi Palace inhabited by the Sultans from here. However, as flowing water was prefered in Islamic belief as opposed to stagnant water, the cistern
was not used after they had established their own water facilities in the city. The area that the cistern is built is slightly larger than a football field (140m x 70m), the walls of the cistern are of brick and are 4.8 m thick. The floor is also brich, and made watertight with a thick layer of famour Khorasan mortar. The weight of the cistern covering a total area of 9.800 m2 with a capacity of storing 100.000 tonnes of water, is transferred onto the columns with cruciform vaults and round arches.

An endless forest of columns

The Basilica Cistern is reached through 52 stone stairs. It is impossible for visitors not to be impressed by the forest of endless columns (336 pieces) rising from the water. These columns consist of 12 rows, each of 28 columns. The height of the columns is the same as a 3 storey building, or even slightly higher (9 meters). All of the columns consist of materials collected from temples and older settlements. That is why, while a large portion of the columns sculpted from various types of marble and granite are single pieces, some consist of two pieces. While 98 pieces of these reflect a Corinth style, a portion of themreflect the Dor style. (In Ancient Greek architecture, if the heads of the columns are adorned with leaf shapes they are called Corinth, if plain then Dor Style) Other than a couple that are square or grooved, a majority of the columns are cylindrical.

The enigma of the Medusa’s Head …

There are two Medusa’s heads that are used as pedestals below two columns; one is on its side, and the other placed head down. Both of these Medusa’s Heads are the masterpieces of Young Roman Period (IV) sculpture. While researchers believe that they were brought to be used as column pedestals during the construction of the cistern, it is also stated that this mythological character may have been used due to the legendary features known by most of us. The Medusa tales we tell to visitors about the columns really attracts their attention. What are these tales?… The first is this. Medusa is one of the three Gorgona, the female monsters of the underworld in Greek mythology. The serpent headed Medusa, one of the three sisters, has the power to turn those who gaze upon her to stone. According to opinion, in that period in order to protect large structures and special places, Gorgona pictures and sculptures were used. That is the reason for placing the Medusa’s head in the cistern. For protection. The second tale is that Medusa is a girl who boasts of black eyes, long hair, and a beautiful body. She loves Perseus, the son of God Zeus. Goddess Athena also loves Perseus and is jealous of Medusa.

Athena turns Medusa’s hair into the form of horrible snakes. Now whoever gazes upon Medusa turns to stone. Perseus, believing that Medusa has been cursed, cuts off her head and goes to battle with her severed head. Those who see the head are turned to stone and Perseus wins the wars. It is said that after this event Medusa is engraved upside down and sideways on all swords and column pedestals of Old Byzantine. It is a symbol of power. According to another tale, Medusa is an element of Pagan beliefs. As the cistern was conducted during the Christian period, the head of Goddess Medusa is used as a pedestal sideways and upside down as a pedestal so as not to refer to paganism/heathenism.

Peacock eye, dropping branch, teardrop shapes on a column

Rumour has it that 7 thousand slaves were used during the construction of the cistern. Among the columns is a column decorated with peacock eyes, drooping branches and teardrops in the form of carvings and embossing. The forms on it are likened to teardrops. It is thought that these images have been carved in commemoration of the hundreds of slaves who died during the construction of the Basilica. Nowadays it is used as a wishing column…

The loss and rediscovery of the Cistern

The cistern was abandoned with the establishment of water facilities by the Ottomans, and lay forgotten until the mid 16th century. The Dutch Explorer P. Gyllius rediscovered the cistern when he came to Istanbul to explore Byzantine ruins between 1544-1550, and it was introduced to the Western world. In one of his investigations, P. Gyllius, while wandering around Hagia Sophia, found out that people living in the houses in the area fathered water in buckets and evne fished from holes in the ground of their homes. He discovered the stone steps leading underground from a courtyard above the cistern surrounded by wooden walls, navigated the cistern on a boat under very difficult conditions, measured the cistern and found the columns, publishing his findings and what he saw in his travel book and became an inspiration to many other explorers.

The Basilica Cistern is not preserved in its original state. It has undergone many repairs since it was originally constructed. The cistern, repaired twice during the Ottoman Empire, was cleaned by the Istanbul Municipality during the Republic in 1987, and was opened to visitors with the construction of a platform. It underwent another major cleaning and maintenance in May 1994. As 8 columns were exposed to the risk of breaking during the construction in 1955-1960, each of these was encased in a thick concrete layer, and have thus lost their original properties. The bottom of the Basilica Cistern, a small underground city, is covered with water. Fish can be seen in the waters of the specially lit place. We know that fish lived here during the active history of the cistern.

To date, many people from former US President Bill Clinton to Dutch Prime Minister Wim Kok, former Italian Foreign Minister Lamberto Dini to former Swedish Prime Minister Goran Persson and former Austrian Prime Minister Thomas Klestil have visited. The Basilica Cistern, currently operated by one of Istanbul Metropolitan Municipal-
ity subsidiaries Kultur Inc., is also host to many national and international events in addition to being a museum.

Hollywood at the Basilica Cistern …

This mysterious location, an integral part of any trip to Istanbul, has played host to many world-famous movies. The cistern appeared in the adaptation of Dan Brown’s Inferno. The hero of the book and the film found the answers he was seeking at the Basilica Cittern. The Basilica Cistern was used as a corridor under the Russian Consulate in the James Bond movie “From Russia with Love”. At the cistern, home to two empires, the best wake boarders in the world have water skied.

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