Exploring the Hidden Depths of the Basilica Cistern

Beneath the bustling streets of Istanbul lies a hidden marvel of ancient engineering: the Basilica Cistern. Known locally as Yerebatan Sarnıcı, this subterranean water reservoir was constructed in the 6th century by Emperor Justinian I of the Byzantine Empire. With its capacity to hold 80,000 cubic meters of water, it ranks among the most impressive cisterns globally.

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What to See Inside the Basilica Cistern?

336 Majestic Columns

The structural integrity of the Basilica Cistern is maintained by 336 towering columns, each standing 9 meters tall. Crafted from white marble, these columns are not only structural but also decorative, featuring reliefs and sculptures including the famed heads of Medusa and other mythological figures.

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Contemporary Art Installations

In recent times, the Basilica Cistern has embraced contemporary art, hosting installations by both Turkish and international artists. These artworks, varying in style and theme, are strategically placed throughout the cistern, adding a modern touch to the ancient backdrop.


The Weeping Column

Within the northwest corner of the cistern lies the enigmatic Column of Tears. Legend has it that this column stands as a memorial to the slaves who perished during the cistern's construction in the dark, damp confines beneath Istanbul. While there's no scientific backing for the column's mournful name, it remains a poignant site for visitors.

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The Medusa Heads

Perhaps the most iconic features of the Basilica Cistern are the Medusa heads. Situated at the base of two columns, these sculptures are believed to have served an apotropaic function, warding off evil. Positioned facing north-northwest, these heads are a mesmerizing sight that captures the imagination of all who visit.

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Stunning Reflections

The still waters of the cistern create mesmerising reflections of the vaulted ceilings and stately columns, making it a favourite feature among visitors. The play of light and shadow on the water's surface adds to the mysterious and otherworldly ambiance of the place.

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Ghostly Legends

Adding to the allure of the Basilica Cistern are tales of its haunted past, centred around the ghostly presence of the Medusa heads. While these stories are unsupported by evidence, they contribute to the mystique and appeal of exploring this ancient wonder.

FAQs about what to see in Basilica Cistern

The Basilica Cistern, located in Istanbul, is an ancient underground reservoir built in the 6th century by Emperor Justinian I, known for its historical and architectural significance. Look up the key facts.

There are 336 marble columns in the Basilica Cistern, each 9 meters tall, notable for their artistic reliefs and mythical Medusa head sculptures. 

Yes, the cistern displays contemporary sculptures by various artists, blending modern art with its ancient architecture.

The Medusa heads are thought to protect against evil, placed at the base of two columns, and are key attractions for their mythological relevance.

The Basilica Cistern offers a unique blend of historical architecture, mystical legends, and reflective waters, making it a captivating destination in Istanbul.