Subterranean Attraction in Istanbul

Basilica Cistern

Explore the Basilica Cistern's ancient columns and Medusa heads in Istanbul's historic underground water reservoir.

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The Basilica Cistern is a remarkable subterranean structure in Istanbul, Turkey, originally built to meet the city's water needs during the Byzantine era. Known locally as Yerebatan Sarayı, which translates to "Sunken Palace," the cistern is famed for its atmospheric underground chamber supported by 336 columns, each standing 9 meters high. Visitors are particularly drawn to the two columns featuring the mysterious upside-down Medusa head bases, linking the site to ancient myths. The cistern's cool, dimly lit corridors offer a unique and historic respite from Istanbul's bustling streets above.

Visiting Tips for the Basilica Cistern

To fully appreciate the Basilica Cistern, plan your visit for early in the morning or during non-peak hours to avoid the crowds. The cistern has a steady cool temperature, which can be a refreshing escape during Istanbul's warmer months. It is advisable to wear comfortable shoes as the walkways can be slippery and uneven due to moisture. The lighting inside is dim, meant to enhance the atmosphere, so visitors should watch their step. There are also guides available for hire at the entrance if you wish to have a more detailed historical commentary during your tour.

The Atmosphere and Acoustics

The cistern’s atmosphere is defined by the sound of dripping water, hushed echoes, and the soft lighting that illuminates the ancient columns. This creates an almost serene ambience amidst the city's activity. Artists and musicians occasionally use the cistern for performances, taking advantage of its unique acoustics. Visitors often report a sense of tranquility while wandering through this historical site, making it a distinct contrast to the lively energy found above ground in Istanbul.

Architectural Features

Each of the 336 marble columns is a marvel of Roman engineering, and they are arranged in 12 rows, creating a forest-like appearance. These columns were repurposed from ruined temples and exhibit various styles, primarily Ionic and Corinthian orders. The symmetry and sheer scale of the cistern impress upon visitors the sophistication of Byzantine architecture.

The Medusa Head Columns

The two famous Medusa head columns at the rear of the cistern attract particular interest due to their origin and orientation—one head is placed sideways, the other upside down. These column bases contribute a layer of mythological intrigue to the cistern and are said to have been placed in their unusual positions to negate the power of the Gorgon's gaze. Their origin remains a subject of speculation, but they are believed to have been brought to the Basilica Cistern from an ancient Roman building from the period of Emperor Constantine.

Role in Istanbul's Water System

The Basilica Cistern played a crucial role in storing water for the Great Palace of Constantinople and other buildings on the First Hill of Constantinople, including the famous Hagia Sophia. Understanding this history provides context for the significance of the cistern in Byzantine and later Ottoman Istanbul. A visit here offers an insight into ancient engineering methods and the city’s need to secure water supply in times of siege or drought.

Accessibility and Visitor Facilities

The Basilica Cistern is accessible to most visitors, with stairway access leading down into the cistern's main area. However, those with mobility issues should note that there are a lot of steps involved. Inside, there is a pathway that allows you to navigate around the site. Restrooms and a small café are available at the entrance for convenience. Additionally, photography is allowed, so bring your camera to capture the eerie beauty of this underground wonder.

Nearby Attractions in Sultanahmet District

The Basilica Cistern is centrally located in Istanbul's historic Sultanahmet District, making it convenient to combine your visit with other nearby attractions. Just a short walk from the cistern, you'll find Sultanahmet Square, home to the iconic Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia. These landmarks, alongside Topkapi Palace and the Hippodrome, provide rich historical context and represent just a fraction of what this area has to offer for those interested in exploring Istanbul's past and present.

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