The Basilica Cistern: Underground Luxury in Istanbul

Istanbul is full of gems that can be seen in the city skyline, but one of the most important and historically valuable landmarks of the city lies under ground, a few feet away from Hagia Sophia. The Basilica Cistern was used to store water before it was forgotten for many centuries, finally rediscovered and turned into one of Istanbul’s most famous sites just over 20 years ago.

The main landmarks in Istanbul are mostly stunning basilicas that have become some of the world’s most important architectural works. The Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia are two of the main symbols of this Turkish city, with its minarets raising themselves to the Istanbul skyline. However, one of Istanbul’s main gems is not visible to the naked eye, instead being buried underground and forgotten for many centuries.

Hagia Sophia Turkey

Hagia Sophia Turkey

The Basilica Cistern is an ancient water cistern built just a few feet from the Hagia Sophia. It was built in the year 532 by order of Emperor Justinian I and it gets its name from the Stoa Basilica, which was located on the first hill of Constantinople and underneath which the cistern was built. The Yerebatan Sarayı, which means the Sunken Palace in Turkish, used to store water for the great Byzantine Palaces of the city in case that the Valens Aqueduct, which supplied water to the palaces and the city, was destroyed in the many sieges that Istanbul had to endure.

This underground site is the size of an average cathedral, and it’s held by 336 Roman columns distributed in 12 rows, most of which are of Doric or Corinthian style and that came from different pagan Roman temples throughout Anatolia. It’s 450ft long by 210ft wide approximately and it’s an ideal spot to visit if you want to escape the Istanbul heat in the summer. It’s hard to believe that this place was used to store water since the columns are of great architectural value, especially the upside-down medusa heads that you can find at the bottom of some columns. After much research, it is believed that these heads were carved upside down to keep evil spirits away.

Drops of water fall from the ceiling in this place that was abandoned and rediscovered in the 16th century, only for the Ottomans to neglect this underground palace and use it for storage. Three different restoration periods were carried out in the 18th, 19th and mid-20th century and it eventually became a tourist attraction. The lighting is dim at the place and classical music that’s quietly played along with the sounds of dripping water give the cistern a unique atmosphere. It wasn’t until 1987 that the cistern was open to the public and you can still see the wear and the effect that the water has had on the columns.

At one end of the basilica there’s also the Cistern Café, perhaps the most unusual place in the city where you can enjoy a cup of tea when you find and compare prices of apartments in Istanbul, as you will not just be able to avoid the heat of the city but also the sounds of the big city, being able to enjoy the beautiful site that this place is.

For more information and opening times as well as entry prices, visit its official website:

Definitely one of the unmissable sites, the Basilica Cistern embodies the essence of Istanbul, a city full of secrets that has luxury and beautiful architecture everywhere you look.

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