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The Basilica Cistern

Updated: Mar 12, 2023

To examine the history of a civilization, first consider its water.

Ancient civilizations formed on the banks of rivers. The ancient Egyptians lived near the Nile, the Mesopotamians on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the Chinese on the Yellow River, and Indians on the Indus River. Rome was, of course, known for its complex water system supplied by the Tiber River. But what about Constantinople?

Unlike many great cities, Constantinople was not built on a major river. The seas that surrounded it ensured that it was well-defended, open for trade and imports, and had easy access to fishing resources. But there was (and remains) a major deficit of good fresh water. For this reason, in the early second century AD, the emperor Hadrian built a major aqueduct for the city of Byzantium. These waters were drawn from the springs of the Belgrade Forest, about 9 miles (15 km) northwest of the city.

In 324 AD, Constantine the Great made Byzantium the new capital of the Roman Empire and renamed it Constantinople. Initially, Hadrian's aqueducts supplied the new city, but as the city expanded, new, higher sources of water were needed. (Until the 19th century, piped water could only be transported over long distances by the force of gravity.) Because of this, Constantine and his successors built a new aqueduct from springs 37 miles (60 km) to the west. This systemwhich consisted of large vaulted masonry channels, 90 bridges, and many tunnels up to 3 miles (5 km) longwas expanded in the fifth century to springs 70 miles (120 km) away, giving the aqueduct a total length of 265 miles (426 km). This made it the longest aqueduct of the ancient world. (The Roman aqueduct, by contrast, was only about 31 miles, or 50 km, long.)

The expansion of Constantinople's aqueducts shown above. Not sure what happened when the Ottomans took over!

Once the water arrived in the city, it, of course, had to be stored somewhere. That's where the city's underground cisterns came in, and in particular, the Basilica Cistern.

Like most sites in İstanbul, the Basilica Cistern has an unusual history. It was called the Basilica Cistern because it lay underneath the Stoa Basilica, one of the great squares on the first hill, just west of Hagia Sophia. The cistern, also called Yerebatan Sarayı (“Sunken Palace”) in Turkish, was commissioned by Emperor Justinian in 532 AD. It was constructed using 336 columns, many of which were salvaged from ruined temples.

The cistern was able to store up to 80,000 cubic meters of water delivered via 12.5 miles (20km) of aqueducts from a reservoir near the Black Sea. It was originally designed to service the Great Palace and surrounding buildings but was closed later when the emperors relocated. Surprisingly, the cistern was then forgotten for many years before the Ottomans seized control in 1453 and renamed the city in Istanbul. In1545, the French scholar Petrus Gyllius was researching Byzantine antiquities and discovered that local residents were getting water and even catching fish by lowering buckets into a dark space below their basement floors. Intrigued, Gyllius explored the neighborhood and finally accessed the cistern through one of the basements.

Drawings of the Basilica Cistern after its discovery (from left to right: Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach in 1721, W.H. Bartlett in 1838, and Thomas Allom in 1836).

Sadly, the Ottomans did not take very good care of the cisterns after their discovery. For many years the cistern was mostly used as a dumping groundsometimes even for corpses.

Following World War I, Istanbul became a part of the Republic of Turkey in 1923. In 1940, the city decided to hand the cistern over to the museum administration in order to prepare it for tourists. It took years to clean and restore the cistern, but in 1987, the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality finally opened it to the public. Today, it appears as you see in these pictureslighted and beautiful.

As mentioned above, many of the columns in the Basilica Cistern were salvaged from ruined temples. The most notable examples of reused material are the two columns decorated with Medusa heads and the so-called “peacock-eyed” or “tear-drop” column.

Medusa Heads: In Greek mythology, Medusa was one of the Gorgon monsters, usually depicted with wings—and, of course, a head of snakes. Because she was the only mortal among the three Gorgons, her killer, Perseus, was able to slay her by cutting off her head. Many versions of the story say that her severed head, which could turn you to stone if you looked at it, became part of the shield Athena carried.

There are several competing theories to explain why one of the Medusa heads is sideways at the base of a column and the other is completely upside-down. Some say the upside-down head is “proof that Byzantine builders saw Roman relics as little more than reusable rubble,” while others point to the early Christian practice of putting pagan statues upside-down to make a bold statement about their faith. Either way, they're eerie.

The Peacock-Eyed Column: The “peacock-eyed” column, which is similar to column fragments from the Forum of Theodosius, resembles the artistic convention of the Club of Hercules, as seen in the famous Farnese Hercules, which depicts Hercules resting on his club. This would mean that the column is decorated with knots of a tree, rather than peacock eyes or tear-drops.

Another interesting fact about the Basilica Cistern: A scene from the 1963 James Bond film From Russia with Love was filmed here. Not hard to see why! :)

Also noteworthy: I highly recommend visiting Istanbul in the winter. It was cold but not terribly cold, and the crowds were far less than in the summer (or so I've been told). My tour guide told me the Basilica Cistern is often quite crowded, but it really wasn't bad when I visited in late November.

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Hi Jessica,

This post is magnificent. I loved the photos, but the description of how the cistern came about, was managed, used, and then neglected with eventual restoration makes for a great read.

This probably reflects more where my head often is, but when I read the word cistern, my mind goes to a specific application rather than the general meaning of the word. When I read the title, I thought this post was going to be about ancient water closets. 😆

Thanks again for a terrific post.

Jessica Cyphers
Jessica Cyphers
Mar 13, 2023
Replying to

Lol, I'm so glad to hear you enjoyed this post, Gary! I enjoyed researching it. Of course, my tour guide told me many of the details while I was there, but most of them went in one ear and out the other. :D The history of the place really is fascinating. I'm so glad they restored the "Sunken Palace"; it would have been a tragedy for this water closet to have been lost forever!

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