There are hundreds of underground reservoirs that lie beneath Istanbul, and the largest one of all is The Basilica Cistern. The cistern is in the old city, Sultanahmet, near Hagia Sophia and was built in the year 532, by a Byzantine Emperor.
From the outside, you’d never know this place existed – apart from the long queue of people lining up to visit in summer ,apparently! However, when you buy your ticket (we paid 10tl each as Berkay showed his ID card, but I think for foreign tourists its around 30tl) enter and go down the steps, you see the hidden beauty that lies beneath.
A forest of 336 columns support the arched ceiling, most of which were salvaged from the ruins of other temples and recycled. They are beautifully lit up from the ground, with the lights reflecting off the shallow water that still remains in the cistern. There are raised walkways over the pool of water, allowing visitors to walk around..
Obviously this place once held a lot of water, 100,000 tonnes according to the signs inside, and supplied places such as the Great Palace & Topkapi Palace but it is now almost completely drained.
One of the columns is noticeably different to the others – it is known as the crying or tear column as it is wet and has eyes engraved on it which look as if they are crying. It’s thought that this was deliberate, to honor the 7000 slaves who lost their lives during the construction of the cistern.
Towards the back corner of the cistern, there are two famous columns – the bases of which are carved with images of the snake-headed Medusa. One is placed upside down, the other on its side, and nobody really quite knows why – a mystery!
It is said that the cistern was forgotten about for a long period of time, and only got rediscovered in the 1500’s when a foreign traveler researching ruins in the area became curious after learning that residents in the area gathered fresh water and fish by lowering buckets into holes in their basements, leading into the cistern – I love this story, what a discovery that must have been! It became neglected even more so after its discovery, and it wasn’t until the late 1980’s that it was cleaned, renovated, properly drained and opened to the public.
Ever since I first saw photos of this place, one thing came into my mind – Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets. Does anyone else see that?! I was so excited to visit as it really reminds me of that so much! My photo’s don’t really do it justice, in person it is a little eerie – dim lights, a mixture of atmospheric music and the sound of dripping water from above – quite off putting when drips land on your head!
Definitely a must visit place!
P.S click on any of the photos above to enlarge them and see them in all their glistening glory!