The Basilica Cistern has a much more poetic name in Turkish – Yerebatan Sarnıcı or “Cistern Sinking Into Ground”. It’s also known as Istanbul’s Sunken Palace. To a visitor unaware of its purpose or its history it could easily be mistaken for some sacred underground temple with the many columns that give it an impressive atmosphere.
Not too long ago the cistern could only be explored by the use of tiny boats which I imagine would have been a magical experience. Magical because of the columns that reach up from the depths to the heights of the vaulted ceiling. Today there are platforms built for visitors to explore the various parts of the cistern.
Built in the 6th century during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, the Basilica Cistern had originally been located beneath the Stoa Basilica, a large public square on the First Hill of Constantinople that served as a commercial, legal and artistic centre. The Stoa Basilica was destroyed by fire and when Justian rebuilt it, he also reconstructed the cistern beneath it using material recycled from other more ancient structures.
The Basilica Cistern was the principal source of water on the First Hill throughout the Byzantine era. Eventually, knowledge of it was lost for over a century until one day a stranger to the city rediscovered it.
It was the remnants of the Stoa Basilica that the French scholar Pierre Gilles was looking for when he had stumbled upon the forgotten cistern. He had come to the city in 1544 to study the ancient topography of the city and its Byzantine monuments. He had noticed that people in the area could lower baskets from their basements and fetch water and fish but no one was aware of where the water was coming from.
After a long and diligent search, he found an entrance through one of the homes in the area and made his descent. The area above the cistern had been completely built over, leaving no indication that there could be a cistern beneath it.
In his journal, Gyllius wrote, “By chance, I went into a house where there was a way down to it and went aboard a little skiff. I discovered it after the master of the house lit some torches and rowed me here and there through the pillars, which lay very deep in water. He was very intent on catching his fish, with which the Cistern abounds, and speared some of them by the light of the torches. There is also a small light that descends from the mouth of the well and reflects on the water, where the fish usually come for air.”
The cistern originally had 336 columns in 12 rows of 28 each but 90 of them have been sealed off and are no longer visible today. Most of the columns are capped by Byzantine Corinthian capitals that support the ceiling.
On the far left corner of the cistern, there are two columns which stand on pedestals carved by classical egg-and-dart designs and these rest on extraordinary bases in the form of Medusa heads. One of the Medusa heads is turned upside down while another is turned on its side. There is some speculation as to why the Medusa heads were used but it is most likely because they were the right size to support the columns.
It is thought that these medusa heads were once part of a Gorgon frieze on some classical temple in Asia Minor brought to Constantinople to be used for decorative purposes. This was a common practice at the time – to recycle architectural elements from other cultures for both ideological and pragmatic reasons. Re-using materials meant that they didn’t need to be reproduced which saved time and effort.
One of the most interesting pieces in the Basilica Cistern is what has been called the Peacock Column, also known as the Hen’s Eye Column with its teardrop motif. The constant dripping of water onto its surface has caused it to turn a lovely blue-green colour. It is said to be dedicated to the slaves killed during the construction of the cistern.
The Basilica Cistern has the capacity to store 100,000 tons of water. It is virtually empty today with only a few feet of water lining the bottom but enough that carp can still be seen swimming in it. The water came from the Belgrade Forest 12 kilometres away north of Istanbul via the Valens Aqueduct.
In 1985 the cistern was cleared and renovated and opened to the public in 1987. Lights and an elevated walkway were added as well as a cafe for visitors. Its cavernous depths make it a cool retreat from the heat in summer.