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Basilica Cistern Istanbul
Basılıca cıstern / yerebatan sarnıcı
ıstanbul / Konstantınople

 

 

One of the magnificent ancient buildings of İstanbul is the Basilica Cistern located in the southwest of Hagia Sophia. Constructed for Justinianus I, the Byzantium Emperor (527-565), this big underground water reservoir is called as “Yerebatan Cistern” among the public because of the underground marble columns. As there used to be a basilica in the place of the cistern, it is also called Basilica Cistern.

Basılıca cıstern / yerebatan sarnıcı
ıstanbul / Konstantınople
Basilica Cistern Istanbul

The cistern is 140 m long, and 70 m wide, and covers a rectangular area as a giant structure. Accessible with 52-step staircase, the Cistern shelters 336 columns, each of which is 9 m high. Erected at 4.80 m intervals from one another the columns are composed of 12 rows, each has 28 columns. The case-bay of the cistern is conveyed by the columns through arches. Majority of the columns, most of which is understood to have been compiled from the ancient structures and sculpted of various kinds of marbles, is composed of a single part and one of it is composed of two parts. The head of these columns bears different features in parts. 98 of them reflect the Corinthian style and part of them reflect the Dorian style. The cistern has 4.80 m high brick walls, and the floor is covered by bricks, and plastered by a thick layer of brick dust mortar for water tightness. Covering 9,800 sqm area in total, the cistern has an estimated water storage capacity of 100,000 tons.

Basilica Cistern Istanbul

Except for couple of the edged and grooved columns of the cistern, the majority of them are shaped like a cylinder. Two Medusa head, which is used as supports under the two columns at the northwest edge of the cistern, is the great work of art from the Roman period. What attracts the most attention from the visitors is that the structure from which the Medusa head has been taken is unknown. The researchers often consider that it has been brought for being used as supports to the column at the time of construction of the cistern. However, this has not prevented myths for the heads of Medusa.

According to the most famous of these legends, Medusa was one of the most beautiful women of ancient time with her black eyes and long hair. Zeus’s son had a love with the semi-god Perseus. Medusa was sentenced to eternal damnation by jealous Athena. As a result of Athena’s wrath, there was no trace of her beauty. As Medusa’s long hair turns into a snake, it begins to turn men who look daring to look at her into stones.

According to another story, it was believed that the purpose of Medusa Heads here was to protect the region. In this version of the story, it is mentioned that the mythological creature was one of the three female monsters in the underground world.

Mudusa Head in Basilica Cistern Istanbul
Mudusa Head in Basilica Cistern Istanbul

It was built by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I in 532. The cistern has been used to provide the water needs of the Great Palace. In the construction, 7,000 slaves were employed. To the gigantic structure, the water was provided by two arches extending to the Eğriapı and the center of Taksim in the Belgrad Forests which located 19 kilometers away from the city. One of these arches was built 971 meters by Emperor Valens and the other, 116 meters, was built by Emperor Justinianus.

The city entered into the domination of Ottoman in 1453. Then the cistern was used for a short time to provide the water needs of the gardens in Topkapı Palace. However, because of the Ottoman Empire in which Islamic believes were reversed, the use of the building was abandoned. 

It was doomed after the Ottomans established their own systems. The discovery of the Dutch P. Gyllius, who came to Istanbul to research Byzantine remains between 1544 and 1550, made it famous among the westerners. The reputation of the exploration has increased after writing in a travel book. The cistern has undergone two major renovations in the Ottoman period. The first one of these restorations was made under the leadership of Kayserili Mehmet Ağa during the Ahmet III period and the second one is in during Abdülhamit II period.

An accident occurred during a construction work in the region between 1955 and 1960. The result of the accident caused the breakage in 8 columns towards the middle of the northeast wall of the structure. Despite the fact that the columns were covered and reinforced with a thick concrete layer, the traces of accident can still be seen clearly.

Today it is a frequent destination of culture tours. To the cistern, walking platforms were added during the cleaning and restoration work carried out in the municipality in 1987. It has been opened to the public visiting since that date. The cistern hosts to artistic activities as well as tours.

Thedosius Style Column
Old photo of Basilica Cistern
Old photo of Basilica Cistern
Painting of Basilica Cistern Konstantinople

Today, the cistern is still active and serves as a museum & Historical place for the tourists visiting the downtown of İstanbul. Because of its influensive & magic atmosphere,  some parts of famous Holywood films had been recorded in the cistern. The  movie ''İnferno'' a Novel by Dan Brown & casted by Tom Hanks & Siena Miller, Seaan Connary's  ''With love From Russia-James Bond'' can be given as examples.

hanks_edited.jpg
sean%20connary_edited.jpg
 
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