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Istanbul / Suadiye

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Istanbul / Esma Sultan

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Basilica Cistern

From The Marmara Taksim
15 Min
50 min
Basilica Cistern

Tucked into Istanbul’s historical Sarayburnu quarter is the Basilica Cistern, a stunning subterranean cavern dating back to the sixth century. Like the Hagia Sophia Mosque, it was commissioned by Byzantine emperor Justinian as one of the hundreds of cisterns meant to hold rainwater; nowadays, Basilica Cistern is the largest one open to the public.

Essentially an underground cathedral, Basilica Cistern has 336 columns that were formerly used in temples, coming together to create a grand, ghostly space. Though it was once able to hold up to 80,000 cubic meters of water, it is now mostly empty but for small pools in which the occasional school of carp swims. The symmetrical, peaceful space is a feat of architecture; it is evidence of the great infrastructure of the Byzantine empire.  

Continue reading to learn more about Basilica Cistern and how you can visit.  

Statue in the middle of the basilica cistern

History of Basilica Cistern 

In the 3rd and 4th centuries, a famous basilica — a public center used for business and other matters — sat atop the area that is now Basilica Cistern, hence the name. Emperor Constantine built an early version of the cistern to provide water to the basilica’s gardens; Emperor Justinian later rebuilt and expanded the cistern to service the Great Palace of Constantinople. After Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Empire, the Basilica Cistern continued to provide water to the Topkapi palace.  

In 1545, French scientist and traveler Petrus Gyllius rediscovered the cistern, which was still being used by locals but had been largely forgotten by city authorities and the like. Using buckets, locals would draw up water from the cistern, and sometimes even catch fish. However, dead bodies and other junk would occasionally be found in the water.  

In 1987, Basilica Cistern opened to the public, becoming a popular tourist attraction. Mud was removed, columns were restored, and wooden platforms were laid out throughout the space for visitors to walk upon.  

Why Visit? 

Basilica Cistern is a gorgeous, cool space with a fascinating — and at times creepy — history. It is the perfect respite from summer heat, and its ancient columns are well worth marveling at. The cistern is also home to two Medusa heads in its left-hand corner, both used at the bases of columns. One is upside down and the other is turned sideways; some people believe that this was intentional, as the placement would keep Medusa’s gaze from turning visitors into stone (as it is able to do in Greek mythology).  

Besides the Medusa columns, though, Basilica Cistern is a must-see for its mystical, improbable existence and the beauty of its design. 

How to Visit 

Located steps away from the Hagia Sophia Mosque, Basilica Cistern is a short distance away from Istanbul’s city center. It is open daily from 9:00 am to 7:00 pm, with shorter hours on the first day of public holidays. You can find Turkey’s public holiday schedule here 

Tickets can be purchased at Basilica Cistern for 300 TL (Turkish lira), which is about 15 USD. Many tour services offer guided tours of Basilica Cistern.

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quick FAQ

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