Basilica Cistern, Istanbul

Beneath Istanbul lie hundreds of gloomy Byzantinecisterns. They’re left from the days when Istanbul was Constantinople. Most large, important Byzantine buildings provided for storage of water beneath them.

The grandest of all is the Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Sarnıç), so called because it lay beneath the Stoa Basilica, a grand Byzantine public square. It’s also called the Sunken PalaceCistern (Yerebatan Saray Sarnıçı) because that’s what it looks like.

Whatever you call it, it’s impressive because of its size, measuring 138 meters (453 feet) long and 64.6 meters (212 feet) wide, covering nearly 9800 square meters (2.4 acres); its capacity (80,000 cubic meters—over 21 million US gallons) and its 336 marble columns.

It’s open every day of the week from 09:00 am to 18:30 (6:30 pm) in “summer” (undefined), till 17:30 (5:30 pm) in “winter” (also undefined on the cistern’s website). On the first day of Islamic holidays and on January 1st (New Year’s Day), it opens at 13:00 (1 pm).

Admission costs TL10. You’ll probably want to stay anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour.

Remember the scene in the old James Bond movie From Russia With Love when Bond is rowing in a small boat through a forest of marble columns? That scene was filmed in Yerebatan.

Built by Justinian after 532, the Basilica Cistern stored water for the Great Palace and nearby buildings. Lost to memory, it was rediscovered by Petrus Gyllius, who came to Constantinople in search of Byzantine monuments. Gyllius, who noticed that local people got their water by lowering buckets through holes in the floors of their houses, found an entrance and thus put it back on the map.

The Ottomans used it to supply Topkapı Palace.

Medusa Head, Yerebatan Sarnıçı (Basilica Cistern), Istanbul. Turkey
Medusa head used as a column pediment

Walkways and atmospheric lighting were installed during the 1990s so you can see all its curious corners. Soft music plays to create a mood. There’s even a little café for drinks and snacks.

Yerebatan is in Sultanahmet Square, at the northeastern end of the Hippodrome, just off Divan Yolu, and across the street from Ayasofya(Hagia Sophia) (map). The entrance (see the photo to the right) is on Yerebatan Caddesi; the exit is opposite Ayasofya on Alemdar Caddesi.

—by Tom Brosnahan


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