Istanbul is a city that has been shaped by many different civilizations, making it a fascinating place to explore. One of the most impressive historical sites in Istanbul is the Basilica Cistern, which is a testament to the city’s past and hidden beneath its bustling streets. Located around 150m southwest of the Hagia Sophia, it is the largest of several ancient cisterns that lie beneath the city.
A Subterranean Wonder
As I descended a 52-step staircase below the ground level, I felt transported to a different era. The Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Saray/Sarnıcı) was constructed during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I in the 6th century. Its origins, however, trace back even further. Before the cistern’s construction, a grand Basilica had graced this site since the Early Roman Age. Over the centuries, the cistern served as a vital water source for Constantinople, later providing water to the Topkapi Palace during Ottoman rule and beyond.
Basilica Cistern is between 1500 To 1700 years old and attracts over 2.2 million visitors every year.
The Byzantine Empire made significant contributions to Istanbul’s architecture and advanced civil infrastructure, creating a modern city. Much of what was built during that period still stands today as a testament to their greatness.
The name “Basilica” may have originated from the cistern’s position beneath the former Roman Basilica, which used to be a place for business and trade deliberations.
The cistern was constructed with 336 marble columns, each 9 meters in height.
Basilica Cistern: An Architectural Grandeur
Stepping into the Basilica Cistern, I couldn’t help but feel amazed by its immense size. Covering an impressive 105,000 square feet, it felt like a hidden underground palace. The ceiling was a true architectural wonder, held up by 336 towering marble columns that reached a height of 30 feet. The columns were arranged with great precision in rows of 12, each containing 28 columns and spaced 16 feet apart. Interestingly, some of these columns were repurposed from the remains of older structures, adding a sense of intrigue to the cistern’s past.
Despite wars and earthquakes over the centuries, Basilica Cistern remains a testament to Byzantine ingenuity and serves as a lasting solution to water storage.
The Enigmatic Medusa Heads
While exploring the cistern, I noticed something intriguing. On the northwest side, two column supports were, in fact, Medusa heads, with one lying on its side and the other positioned upside down. The mysterious origins of these relics added a deep sense of intrigue within the ancient depths of the cistern. Interestingly, a third Medusa head can also be found in the Istanbul Archaeology Museums, further adding to the puzzle of their presence.
In ancient mythology, the tale of Medusa unfolds as a strikingly beautiful woman caught in a love triangle with Athena and Perseus. Driven by jealousy, Athena transforms Medusa’s hair into serpents, and her gaze into a petrifying curse. To escape her affliction, Medusa gazes at her reflection, turning herself to stone. Within Istanbul’s Basilica Cistern, the stone heads of Medusa are positioned upside down to prevent their dreaded gaze. Intriguingly, a tradition persists where visitors throw coins into the cistern’s waters, believing that it will grant their wishes. This narrative weaves an enduring mystique around Medusa’s enigmatic legend and the subterranean marvel she inhabits.
A Timeless Istanbul Attraction
Today, the Basilica Cistern has evolved into a popular tourist attraction, consequently drawing visitors from around the world. Its mystical ambiance and historical significance have made it a sought-after location for numerous movies. Some notable examples include the iconic 1963 James Bond classic, ‘From Russia with Love’. Additionally, the cistern has featured in movies like The International, Assassin’s Creed: Revelations, Brotherhood of Tears, and Inferno.
In the heart of Istanbul, beneath the busy streets lies a world of history waiting to be explored. The Basilica Cistern, with its fascinating blend of ancient architecture and mysterious artifacts, is a true testament to the city’s enduring legacy as a melting pot of civilizations.
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