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.

Emperor Justinian ordered the construction of the Basilica Cistern in 532 AD after the Nika riots destroyed Constantinople.

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.

The cistern was forgotten after the Ottoman Empire took over the city. It was later rediscovered in the 16th century by a French scholar named Petrus Gyllius, who heard stories of locals drawing water and even catching fish from it.

Basilica Cistern is between 1500 To 1700 years old and attracts over 2.2 million visitors every year.

Byzantine legacy

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.

Name Origin

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.

Cisterns were widespread in Byzantine Istanbul, serving as storage facilities for various purposes. The Basilica Cistern, in particular, stood out as the largest and most significant among them.

The cistern was constructed with 336 marble columns, each 9 meters in height.

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.

The cistern measures 138 meters in length, and 65 meters in width, and can store up to 80,000 cubic meters of water.
The Peacock’s Eye, also known as the Weeping Column, features intricately carved eyes that appear to shed tears. It serves as a poignant homage to the countless slaves who labored and perished during the cistern’s construction.

Despite wars and earthquakes over the centuries, Basilica Cistern remains a testament to Byzantine ingenuity and serves as a lasting solution to water storage.

In 1980, the Basilica Cistern was transformed into a museum for tourists, adorned with lighting and decorations.
Medusa heads as column suppport. Medusa in Greek mythology represents a Gorgon, a creature with snakes for hair and a gaze that turns people to stone.

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.

Interestingly, two Medusa heads serve as column bases in the cistern, possibly taken from older structures or reused construction materials. The reasons for this recycling remain a mystery.

Greek mythology

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.

Basilica Cistern has evolved into a popular tourist attraction, consequently drawing visitors from around the world.
The cistern’s size often astounds visitors, as it can accommodate over two hundred people. Despite its historical significance, it still contains water and even fish.

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.

The Basilica Cistern is located near the Hagia Sophia, therefore making it easily accessible to tourists visiting Sultanahmet Square in Istanbul.

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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Fine Art and Travel Photography by Asif Naqvi

Photography is not just about capturing images; it’s a fascinating journey of exploration and observation that connects us with surrounding realities. It is the art of seeing, exploring, and imagining the world around us through a lens. I strongly believe in the ability of images to stimulate thoughts and evoke emotions. Each frame captures a moment in time and tells a story, allowing the viewer to become immersed in the visual narrative commonly known as storytelling.

It is all about seeing, observing, and making visual notes.

Having ventured into the realm of imagination, I stepped into the real world and discovered a newfound appreciation for nature. Grand landscapes, delicate flora, and fascinating fauna inspire me to see the world anew, with open eyes and heart.

As I make my way back to human civilization, I wander through diverse cultures and untrodden paths. I find inspiration in the essence of each place and its people. Travel photography, for me, is a way to connect with the soul of a destination.

My photography is not just an expression of my vision, but an invitation to see the world from a different angle.

I am always seeking fresh perspectives, hence pushing the boundaries of my art to capture those elusive moments that resonate deeply with my audience. My photography is not just an expression of my vision, but an invitation to see the world from a different angle, to find beauty in the seemingly mundane, and to appreciate the manners of our existence.

Join me on this artistic journey at, where we’ll embark on an adventure through images. They stir the spirit, ignite the imagination, and inspire a deeper appreciation for the marvels that surround us.

With boundless enthusiasm and a camera in hand,

⸻ Aksgar Asif Naqvi

Aks Gar ( عکس گر ): a Persian/Urdu compound word to describe an image maker or a photographer.

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