The Basilica Cistern, also known as Yerebatan Sarnici, is an ancient underground cistern, as well as one of the most intriguing historical sites in Istanbul. It is fascinating to go underneath and observe where water was kept in the past. It is definitely a one-of-a-kind experience. The cistern was built in 532 by the Emperor Justinian. 336 columns were used in total. Located on an area of approximately 10,000 square meters, the cistern was used to store the city’s water needs in the past. Restored in 1985, the cistern was opened to the public in 1987 and is now one of the most popular tourist attractions in Istanbul.
About Its Name
In contemporary English, the term “basilica” refers to either a building with a central nave and aisles or a big church with a curving end and two rows of columns. The well-known Basilica Cistern in Istanbul is none of these. It is just an old water reservoir.
It was the largest of over 200 Byzantine period cisterns under the city. Because of the rows of columns within, it should have been titled as such. Columns and capitals from previous pagan temples were reused in its construction, giving it a very ornamental aspect. As a result, it is frequently referred to as ‘saray,’ which translates to ‘palace’ in Turkish.
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Fast Facts about Basilica Cistern
- Basilica Cistern is the largest of several hundred ancient cisterns that lie beneath the city. It is located in the Sultanahmet neighborhood, near the Hagia Sophia.
- The cistern was constructed in the 6th century during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I. It was designed to provide a water filtration system for the Great Palace of Constantinople and other nearby buildings.
- The cistern is 140 meters long and 70 meters wide, with a capacity of over 80,000 cubic meters of water. It is supported by 336 marble columns, each 9 meters tall.
- The cistern remained in use for centuries until it was largely forgotten and fell into disrepair. It was rediscovered and restored in the 1980s, and is now a popular tourist attraction.
- Visitors walk on wooden platforms over the water, which is home to schools of fish. The columns and walls are illuminated with soft lighting, creating a peaceful and mysterious atmosphere.
- One of the most famous features of the cistern is the two Medusa heads that are used as column bases. It is believed that the heads were brought from a Roman building and placed upside down to neutralize their power.
- Basilica Cistern has been featured in numerous films and TV shows, including the James Bond movie “From Russia with Love” and the video game “Assassin’s Creed: Revelations.”
- The cistern is open to visitors every day from 9am to 6:30pm.
- Visitors should dress modestly and wear comfortable shoes, as the cistern can be slippery and humid. Photography is allowed, but the use of flash is prohibited.
Quick History of Basilica Cistern
The cistern was built during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I in the 6th century AD. The cistern was constructed to provide water to the city of Istanbul, which was known as Constantinople at that time.
The Basilica Cistern was built using 336 columns, each measuring around 9 meters in height. The columns were brought from various locations, including ancient ruins and temples. The cistern measures approximately 138 meters in length and 64.6 meters in width. It has a capacity of around 80,000 cubic meters of water.
After the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453, the Basilica Cistern continued to be used to provide water to the city. In the 16th century, the cistern underwent a major restoration under the orders of Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. The cistern was later used as a dumping ground for various waste materials, including dead bodies and garbage.
In the mid-19th century, the cistern was rediscovered by a Frenchman named Petrus Gyllius, who was researching Byzantine antiquities in Istanbul. In the years that followed, the cistern was restored and opened to the public as a tourist attraction.
Today, the Basilica Cistern is one of Istanbul’s most popular tourist attractions, attracting thousands of visitors each year. The cistern is famous for its unique architecture and the two Medusa heads, which are used as the base of two of the columns. The cistern has also been featured in several movies and video games.
What to expect from your visit?
Visiting the Basilica Cistern is a unique experience that allows visitors to step back in time and explore the ancient water storage system. The Basilica Cistern features impressive architectural elements such as the 336 marble columns, many of which were salvaged from ancient ruins, and the vaulted ceilings.
You can see two Medusa heads at the base of two columns, which are believed to have been reused from an earlier Roman building. The Basilica Cistern has a unique atmosphere, with dim lighting and the sound of dripping water, making it a peaceful and eerie place to visit.
You can also admire the impressive architectural elements of the cistern, including the arches, vaulted ceilings, and the symmetry of the columns.
The cistern features informative exhibits about its history and the engineering behind the construction of this magnificent underground structure. The unique atmosphere and stunning architecture of the Basilica Cistern make it a popular spot for photography enthusiasts.
The Basilica Cistern can be a popular attraction, so visitors may encounter crowds during peak times. It’s best to plan your visit for early in the morning or later in the afternoon to avoid the crowds. Make sure you look for the upside-down Medusa sculpture at the rear. It is remarkably non-odorous or smelly. Try it out!
Tour Booking Advice
Tour Basilica Cistern on Video
Visiting Basilica Cistern Tips
- Try to visit the cistern early in the morning or later in the afternoon to avoid the crowds.
- The cistern is underground and can be quite humid, so make sure to wear comfortable shoes and clothing that won’t make you too hot.
- Basilica Cistern is a beautiful and unique site, so make sure to bring a camera to capture the experience.
- The cistern offers an audio guide that provides a lot of interesting information about the history and significance of the site.
- There are certain rules you should follow when visiting Basilica Cistern, such as not touching the columns or throwing anything into the water.
- Sometimes the cistern might be closed for maintenance, so it’s always a good idea to check the official website or call ahead to make sure it’s open.
Hours and Fees
Basilica Cistern is open every day between 09:00-18:30.
- Entrance to Basilica Cistern is 300 TL
- There are also variety of guided tours with skip-the-lines entry
Getting to Basilica Cistern Tips
Basilica Cistern is located in Sultanahmet neighborhood, directly across the street from the Hagia Sophia, which belongs to Fatih district. See on google map.
For those coming from Taksim, Galata or Besiktas areas, can take the Kabatas-Bagcilar T1 tram line passing through Kabatas, Karakoy, and get off at Sultanahmet stop.
For those on the Asian side of Istanbul, can take the ferry to Eminonu or take the Marmaray line from Uskudar and get off at the Sirkeci stop. And than you can take the Kabatas-Bagcilar tram line passing through Eminönü and Sirkeci stops, and get off at Sultanahmet stop.
Address: Alemdar Mh., Yerebatan Str. 1/3, Fatih, Istanbul
Tel: +90 212 512 15 70