The Basilica Cistern ('Yerebatan Sarayı' or 'Yerebatan Sarnıcı'), is the largest of several hundred ancient cisterns that still lie beneath the city of Istanbul, former Constantinople, Turkey. The cistern, located in the historical peninsula of Istanbul next to the Hagia Sophia, was built during the reign of emperor Justinian I in the 6th century, the age of glory of Eastern Rome, also called the Byzantine Empire.
This underground structure was known as the “Basilica Cistern” as its was built underneath the Stoa Basilica, a large public square on the First Hill of Constantinople. According to ancient historians, Emperor Constantine
had already constructed a structure, which was rebuilt and enlarged by Emperor Justinian after the Nika riots
of 532. It provided water for the Great Palace of Constantinople
and other buildings on the First Hill, and continued to provide water to the Topkapi Palace
after the Ottoman conquest
in 1453 and into modern times.
Measurements and data
This cathedral-sized cistern is an underground chamber of 143 by 65 metres, capable of holding 80,000 cubic metres of water. The large space is broken up by a forest of 336 marble columns each 9 metres high. The columns are arranged in 12 rows each consisting of 28 columns. The capitals of the columns are mainly Ionic and Corinthian styles, with the exception of a few Doric style with no engravings.
The cistern is surrounded by a firebrick wall with a thickness of 4 meters and coated with a special mortar for waterproofing. The cistern's water was provided from the Belgrade Woods—which lie 19 kilometers north of the city—via aqueducts built by the Emperor Justinian.
The cracks and the columns were repaired in 1968. Having been restored in 1985 by the Istanbul Metropolitan Museum, the cistern was once again opened to the public on 9 September, 1987. It is a popular tourist attraction.
Medusa column bases
The bases of two of the columns reuse earlier blocks carved with the head of a Medusa
. They are located in the northwest corner of the cistern. The origin of the two heads is unknown, though it is rumoured that the heads were brought to the cistern after being removed from an antique building of the late Roman period. Another mystery is why one of the heads is upside down, while the other is tilted to one side. It is commonly accepted by scientists that they were placed that way deliberately.
The cistern was used as a location for the 1963 James Bond
film From Russia with Love
. In the film, it is referred to as being constructed by the Emperor Constantine, with no reference to Justinian. Its location is a considerable distance from the Soviet
(now Russian) embassy, which is located in Beyoğlu
, the newer "European" section of Istanbul, on the other side of the Golden Horn
Also open to the public in Istanbul are the Binbirdirek Cistern
and the Theodosius Cistern