The vast awesomeness of Istanbul’s Basilica Cistern


I don’t know why it took me four trips to Istanbul before I went to the Basilica Cistern. Once I know I passed because the line looked too long. Another time I had to leave town a few hours earlier than originally planned. Whatever the excuses I’ve had, I decided on my most recent trip that, even if only in town for a day, I would get to the Basilica Cistern and finally see it. And now that I’ve been inside I’m even more disappointed with myself for taking so long to get there.

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The Cistern is around 1500 years old, built in the 6th century to help supply the city’s freshwater needs. And, based on what was built, the city was incredible even then. The entrance is an unassuming building, incredibly small compared to the vast room below. Come down the stairs, however, and you are met with the enormous interior, lit to great effect.

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The Cistern is huge. It measures 9,800 square meters (~70×140), with waterproofed walls 4 meters thick and columns 9 meters tall holding up the ceiling. There are 336 columns evenly spaced through the cistern.

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A few of the columns still show the ornate patterns of their original construction.

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And several more of them have detailed caps still in place.

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Perhaps the most bizarre thing about the columns is the base of two of them at the back of the site. Rather than the simple blocks that the rest of the columns sit on, these two sit on massive carvings of Medusa, the mythical woman whose hair was turned to snakes which caused men to turn to stone. No one really knows why the Medusa statues are there. No one really knows where they came from (though it is believed they were imported from another building at one point). Despite that uncertainty, however, the two heads are rather neat to see. The detail in the carvings is incredible.

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Other than the Medusa heads there isn’t a ton of detail in any of the pieces any more. Some of the column caps are nicely preserved and there is that one column but most of the details have been lost in the many centuries since the Cistern was built. Somehow that doesn’t make the overall experience any less incredible. In some ways it is even more spectacular because you can see how beautiful the space was when it was originally built and how well it has survived over the years.

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And spending a bit of time underground in the cool space of the Cistern is a great way to get out of the summer heat or winter snow/drizzle.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

16 Comments

  1. So how long was the line this time and how much did you have to wait. I plan to see this in August and expect pretty long lines

  2. I was there last August (and in August 2009) and did not have to wait more than 20 minutes on either occasion.

    Great pictures.

  3. Some beleive with the destruction of paganism the old temples were dismantled. The medusa heads were already almost perfect squares and so they were repurposed in other construction. Same with colums from old temples.

  4. Awesome pics! I almost made it there Sunday, but after 6hrs of exploring the Blue Mosque, Ayasofia and the Topkapi palace I was way too tired. I guess one can’t do Istanbul in one day, lol.

  5. We were there last April. No line, just an absolutely stunning architecture underground! As you said, you have this small entrance at street level and then down some stairs and wow….

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