Basilica Cistern

The Basilica Cistern is a large cistern built by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I in 532. At that time, Justinian rebuilt most of Constantinople and even the Hagia Sophia Museum was built during Justinian’s reign. The cisterns were used to store the water in the region and distribute it in case the region needed water. With its 100 thousand tons of water storage capacity, Yerebatan is the largest known cistern in Istanbul.

Information about the history of Basilica Cistern

As we said, the Basilica Cistern is one of the largest surviving structures of the Roman period. It is a huge cistern and a total of 336 columns spaced 4.5 meters apart were used to support the structure. The columns are so beautifully illuminated that they create an iconic and memorable image. If you show a photo of the cistern to someone who has been to the Basilica Cistern before, they will know which cistern it is.

Yerebatan Sarnici Sultanahmet Gezilecek Yerler
Sultanahmet Attractions - Basilica Cistern

So where did the water come from to the Basilica Cistern? The water could reach here through the arches built in the Belgrade Forest, about 22 kilometers away. These gently sloping arches, which were the engineering marvels of the period, were gravitated to the water collection pools in Constantinople, where they accumulated, and then distributed to the cisterns through underground tunnels. The public could also draw water from the cisterns and use it by using pump pumps in their gardens or on the streets.

Yerebatan Cistern is called Basilica Cistern in English because there used to be a basilica on or around the cistern. It is also known as the Basilica Cistern because of the difference in size and the splendor of the columns. The Byzantine and Roman Empires used these cisterns to survive possible wars. When the region fell to the Ottomans, the cisterns lost their importance. Since the Ottomans were not afraid of being under attack and culturally did not want to use stagnant water, the cisterns lost their importance over time.

In the 15th and 16th centuries, after the Ottomans stopped using the cistern, it was forgotten and rediscovered in the following centuries and used as a water source for the palace gardens. After the 1980s, the cistern was emptied, cleaned and brought to tourism. It was after this cleaning that Medusa statues were seen.

Basilica Cistern Medusa Head Statue

The most striking architectural structure among the features of Basilica Cistern is its columns. The columns were placed on pedestals to keep them standing. One of these pedestals has become one of the most talked about and discussed subjects of the Basilica Cistern. How the upside-down Medusa head sculpture got here is a matter of curiosity. But it was probably brought here in line with the need for a pedestal for Medusa, whose statue was sculpted in many places during the Roman period. Since the Basilica Palace was built for need rather than as a visual architectural structure, any stone of this size could have been placed here. This is how the Medusa statue came across and started to be used as a pedestal.

Yerebatan Sarnici Ters Medusa Basi Heykeli
Both Medusa statues are one of the most popular and crowded places in the cistern.
Yerebatan Sarnici Yan Medusa Basi Heykeli
It can be difficult to take photos as it is always crowded.

According to Greek mythology, Medusa was condemned to a curse by Athena. Her hair turned into a snake and her gaze turned to stone. According to the legend of the Medusa head statue in the Basilica Cistern, it was deliberately placed there to ensure the protection and security of the place. This is a legend, of course, but another legend is as follows; Emperor Justinian, in order to destroy paganism after he became a Christian, preferred to put the statue of Medusa, the symbol of paganism, upside down so that it would be under water and crush it thoroughly.

Don’t leave the cistern without seeing the patterned column called the Weeping Column or the Pillar of Tears. I have also seen prayers being recited by tourists because it is thought to be the tears of the slaves who took part in the construction of this place or because it reminds them of them.

Yerebatan Sarnici Aglayan Sutun
Yerebatan Sarnici Aglayan Yasli Sutun

Today, the water level of the Basilica Cistern is kept below the walking platform. When this walking platform was not available, people used to travel on the water by boat. In Dan Brown’s novel Inferno (Inferno), which was adapted into a movie, the Basilica Cistern scene takes place. You can see an example of traveling by boat in the 1963 James Bond movie. Tourists throw coins into the water, which looks like a pool with various fish in it, supposedly to make their wishes come true. You can see the coins in the pool.

What are the entrance fee and visiting hours of Basilica Cistern?

The entrance fee for the Basilica Cistern is paid for adults, while students can enter with a discount. You can visit between 09:00 – 17:30 every day of the week, including Monday. Since the cistern is operated by the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality and is not affiliated with the Ministry of Culture, Müzekart is not valid.

Where is the Basilica Cistern and how to get there?

Basilica Cistern, one of the places to visit in the historical peninsula, is located on Yerebatan Street west of Hagia Sophia Museum near Sultanahmet Square. The easiest way to get to the Basilica Cistern is to take the Kabataş Bağcılar tram passing through Divanyolu Street. If you are coming from Kadıköy, Üsküdar, reach Eminönü and take the tram. You can get off at Sultanahmet tram stop and walk to the cistern. In front of the cistern you will probably see dozens of people lined up to enter the cistern, especially on weekends, but don’t let that fool you. These are student groups and tours. Since you are an individual, you can use the passage point to the right of the tours. Then there will be no or less queue.

There is a water scale on the side of the cistern facing the Ayasoyfa Museum. The Basilica Water Scale was built to adjust the pressure of the water coming from the dykes to the cisterns in the city centers for distribution and regulating its distribution.

Yerebatan Sarnici Su Terazisi
Spirit level
Sultahahmet Milyon Tasi Sifir Noktasi
Million stone

Million Stone, the Zero Point of Constantinople

Near the entrance to the Basilica Cistern, next to the tramway, you will see a monument called the Million Stone. The monument, which dates back to the Eastern Roman period, was thought to be the starting point of the ancient Roman roads leading to Constantinople, which was called Constantinople in the Byzantine period. The distance to other ancient cities was written on it. The word mile in its name is the mile, which is a unit of distance measurement. Distances were calculated based on this monument. In the past, merchants used to sell maps of the roads to the places they wanted to go in a shop behind this stone. The distances on the maps were adjusted according to this Million Stone standing in Sultanahmet Square.

The construction of the Million Stone dates back to the 4th century, after Emperor Constantine I settled in Constantinople. The Million Stone is one of the dozens of monuments built to increase the importance of Constantinople, which means Constantine’s city, after it became the capital of the city. This stone signifies the center of the world and was considered a starting point. Today, Greenwich, England is used as the starting point and the clocks are adjusted accordingly.

Of course, the original version of the monument was not like this, it was a more flamboyant monument consisting of four columns and a dome with Byzantine sculptures on it, but it succumbed to time. In Roman times this type of building was called a Tetrapylon. On the wooden platform next to the monument, it is written which country is how far away.