Undercover in Turkey – The Basilica Cistern in Istanbul
52 STEPS BACK TO CONSTANTINOPLE | Darrin Henry
As man-made water reservoirs go, the Basilica Cistern in Istanbul, Turkey, known also as the ‘Yerebatan Cistern,’ is probably one of the most amazing. The advice to Sharon and I from a number of friends after learning our travel plans was, ‘you must visit the Basilica Cistern in Istanbul.’
From Istanbul With Love
Hidden below the ancient city of Constantinople, now Istanbul of course, this large cavity is like something straight out of an Indiana Jones movie. It wasn’t in the Indiana Jones films I should add, although Sean Connery, as James Bond, did take a rowing boat trip through the ancient pillars in the 1963 spy classic, ‘From Russia With Love.’
Having done zero research beforehand for this particular attraction, it was a delightful surprise. Apparently there are hundreds of little ancient cisterns beneath the historic city of Istanbul but only two are open to the public; Yerebatan Cistern (Basilica) is the largest.
Back Then They Made Things To Last
Although connected below ground to the stunning Hagia Sophia museum, the entrance-way to the Cistern from street level is very unassuming. You could almost mistake it for a public toilet block. But the queue does kind of give it away and the armed security guard is another indication this is more than somewhere to spend a penny.
Anyway, into the Cistern we went. Entrance fee of 20 Turkish Lira paid, (£4.50) we descended the 52 steps with other camera toting tourists into the cool, darkened chamber beneath the city.
We were visiting a city that oozed with history and culture at every turn. The Basilica Cistern in Istanbul is an example of this history, a tribute to the incredible engineering excellence from nearly 1,500 years ago. It was constructed by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, in 532AD and has survived centuries of conflict that has often raged above.
The mystic of the Cistern comes wrapped in a story as fascinating as any paper-back thriller, but this is no fiction.
Following the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks in the mid 15th century the Basilica Cistern became forgotten as running water was preferred rather than still water.
Re-discovery of the hidden reservoir came nearly 100 years later by a Dutch traveller researching the Byzantium ruins. It is reported he was led by stories of local people pulling up buckets of fresh water through well-like holes in their house floors. There are even stories some people were catching fish through these holes.
Since then the Basilica Cistern in Istanbul has undergone different cleaning and restoration operations. The venue became a popular tourist attraction following a clean-up in 1987.
Marble Marvels Of The Basilica Cistern
Visitors now get to explore via raised wooden walkways built across the shallow water that reflects the 140m length and 70m breadth of the Cistern. (On our visit it was virtually drained for maintenance work.) Low level lighting illuminates the giant hollow just enough to maintain an exciting, spooky/intriguing atmosphere, enhanced by the echoes of voices and droplets of water that plop nearby.
The 336 columns rise up like a marble forest of perfect tree trunks, holding aloft a beautiful vaulted brick canopy of a ceiling. Like everyone around us we craned our necks to take in the grandeur of it all.
The columns were salvaged from nearby Roman temples during construction. Each pillar stands 9m tall and they are arranged in 12 rows of 28 each. Some of the pillars have patterns and carvings that are little stories on their own. The two columns in the northwest corner of the Cistern sit atop giant, upturned, sculptured Medusa heads. It’s unknown for certain from where these heads originated from, so of course this has led to legendary tales of the Medusa heads of the Basilica Cistern, which only adds to the overall appeal.
If You’re Going To Istanbul…
If full the Basilica Cistern in Istanbul could hold between 80,000 to 100,000 tonnes of water. The Basilica Cistern name is left over as the Stoa Basilica once stood above it. The water contained within came from a reservoir in the Belgrade Forest, near the Black Sea and was used to supply the Great Palace and surrounding buildings.
We emerged from the Cistern with a smile on our faces, it was a brilliant experience, a walk through architectural brilliance one and a half thousand years old. It reminded me a bit of the Surprising Sung Sot Cave in Halong Bay, Vietnam, but this was all man-made. Now it will be us who will be advising anyone going that way, you must visit the Basilica Cistern in Istanbul.