A unique landmark of Istanbul, the Basilica cistern is quite unlike other architectural structures, as it was built during the heyday of the Byzantine Empire. It resembles a luxurious palace hidden from prying eyes deep underground. It once served the strategically important purpose of supplying the city with water in the event of a siege. Now its practical importance is lost and the oldest underground reservoir of the Turkish capital has become a museum.
History of the Basilica Cistern
The Turks gave the reservoir the surprisingly accurate name “sunken palace. Indeed, more familiar are functional structures with a minimum of decorativeness, where everything is aimed at practical use. The image of the Byzantine tank breaks stereotypes, as turned by ancient masters into a model of beauty and grace.
Construction began in the 6th century, it took a long time to complete, the size of the reservoir is huge:
- Length – 145 m;
- The width is 65 m;
- Volume -80 thousand cubic meters;
- The number of columns supporting the vault is 336.
The construction embodied all the advanced technology and engineering developments of the time. It got its name from the location, because the Basilica of St. Sophia used to be located at this point. For strategic reasons, the cistern was built underground. In this way it was better protected from enemy sabotage and faster to accumulate water coming from the Belgrade forest. It was so pure that it was supplied to the imperial palace and the homes of the nobility and used for drinking and cooking.
Mehmet II, who conquered the city, ordered that water be used only to irrigate the gardens. During the reign of Sultan Suleiman, a new reservoir was built and the Basilica cistern became unnecessary. Gradually it was almost forgotten.
There are 140 cisterns in Istanbul, and together with the aqueducts they form a unique water network of the city. The most impressive of these was not mentioned until the 16th century. At this time the Dutch explorer Gyllius was searching for remains of Byzantine buildings on the territory of Istanbul. He turned his attention to a small area where the locals were fishing and taking water. Once he found the entrance and went underground, a unique sight was revealed to him. Thus the Basilica cistern was found again for the Western world.
In 1987 it was cleaned, restored and turned into a museum. It has become one of the most popular attractions in Istanbul. The only way to get there is to stand in a long line.
Design of the Basilica Cistern
Initially the structure consisted of three tiers. Only one survived, the others were destroyed and flooded. The vault is supported by 12 rows of columns, each containing 28 real works of art. The basis for 2 of them are inverted heads of Medusa Gorgon. Her eyes were not made realistic, but left “blind,” modeled on ancient Greek iconic images. The snakes are carved with maximum detail. According to legend, they guard the peace of the mistress while she sleeps and warn her of danger, as well as sting the brave man who dares to get too close. According to myth, the severed head has only 1 deadly look left. For whom she keeps it, it is no longer known.
When building used the power of slaves, no one counted how many slaves died. The annals indicate an approximate number of 7,000 people. Tour guides tell us that one of the columns of the underground palace is forever weeping for the dead. The water slowly trickles down in droplets all the way to the pedestal, truly reminiscent of tears.
The entrance to the underground reservoir resembles an ordinary small house. The miracles begin after passing a short staircase of 52 steps. The interior rooms retain approximately the same temperature throughout the year. Compared to the eternal noise of the metropolis, the halls are very quiet and peaceful. During the restoration, the walls and columns were illuminated, and visitors are greeted by neutral background music, which creates the appropriate mood.
For the convenience of moving around the reservoir, wooden platforms were installed. A walk through them slightly reveals the mystery of the enterprising builders. It becomes clear that the columns were not specially made, but simply imported from the ancient temples. In favor of this version says that the material and structure are significantly different. To see the heads of Medusa Gorgon, you have to go deep into the hall. There, too, a surprise awaits. One of the heads is upside down and the other is lying on its side.
Basilica cistern still holds water, there are fish in it, which are quite successfully caught by local residents. Coins are visible through the water in some areas of the floor. A lot of people want to come back here again.
Most people gather at the Weeping Column, next to the Medusa heads and around the artificial pool where the lazy and fat carp swim.
The acoustics in the halls with high vaults are excellent, and classical music concerts are held regularly. A poster with a schedule and concert program can be obtained free of charge from the travel agency.
They also give out booklets that have a map of Istanbul, which marks not only the Basilica cistern, but also other places of interest:
- Sulaymaniye Mosque;
- Golden Horn Bay;
- Galata Tower;
- Topkapi Palace;
- Rumelihisar fortress.
In the halls of the underground palace scenes of “The Odyssey” and “From Russia with Love” were filmed.
After the walk you can go to the restaurant, which is located in a pleasant coolness of the underground palace and have a little rest with a cup of coffee.
Legends and superstitions
Tourists visiting the tours subconsciously crave the scary or romantic stories associated with this ancient structure. The Column of Tears, in addition to its interesting ornamentation and the droplets of water constantly flowing down it, hides a mysterious hole in one of its sides. It is located in one of the curls. It is believed that if you stick your finger in there and make a wish and turn it around, then the wish is sure to come true.
The Wishing Pool works in a similar way, but to speed up the process, you need to throw a shiny coin in it. Its denomination does not play a role.
It is believed that in the early morning the underground palace has the most positive and cleanest energy.
Worth considering! In the morning in the museum is much easier to breathe, under the ground air is renewed reluctantly, it affects the depth of 10-12 meters. During rush hour with a large number of visitors it becomes uncomfortable.
An interesting belief emerged after the publication of the book Inferno. The action takes place in the Basilica cistern, Dan Brown greatly embellished the reality, some of the facts just made up, which is allowed by the author. But the notion that water reaches chest level everywhere in the underground hall has taken hold, silent on the fact that wooden walkways have been laid everywhere during the restoration. If you get off them, the water rarely rises above your ankles.
Fish divination is popular. They often come into view. There are not many of them, the more interesting it is to take a piece of bread, throw it in the water and count to 3. If the fish takes the crumb away before then, the wish will come true.
How to get there?
The Basilica Cistern is located in the geographical and historical center of Istanbul. In the Sultanahmet area, you should focus on the Hagia Sophia Cathedral. The entrance to the reservoir does not stand out in any way among the surrounding buildings. Without knowing its exact location, you can wander around for a long time. Another sign is the long but rapidly advancing line of those wishing to enter the museum. As an additional reference point is often used signpost with “kilometer zero”.
Location of the Basilica Cisterns on the map of Istanbul
Opening hours and ticket prices
The Basilica Cistern in Istanbul operates as a museum. The schedule is standard, from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. in winter and one hour longer in summer. You have to pay 20 liras for the entrance ticket.
Payment is accepted only in Turkish Liras and in cash. Museum card, which gives discounts on visits to most museums of the capital, is not valid.
There is no time limit for staying in the underground palace. The entrance and exit to the museum are in different locations. It turns out that tourists pass through the reservoir, stopping in the most interesting places. There is a ban on taking pictures of the landmark, but it is practically not respected. At the flicker of flashes, the attendants look on condescendingly.
It usually takes one to one and a half hours to visit the museum, and then you can go on to see the other sights of Istanbul.