The Basilica Cistern In Istanbul – A Spectacular Byzantine Legacy

While everyone has their own personal tastes, nobody can deny the fact that the Basilica Cistern in Istanbul is one of Turkey’s most fascinating attractions. Visit this absolutely breathtaking attraction with one of our fully customizable private Egypt and Turkey Tours.

Basilica Cistern In Istanbul

The Basilica Cistern In Istanbul, Turkey.

Turkey must surely be one of the most fascinating countries to visit. It quite literally has everything a tourist could possibly want. From luxurious modern day beach resorts to quaint little seaside bungalows; from ultra modern architecture, to some of the world’s most famous historical relics. Turkey really is a treasure trove waiting to be discovered, and the Basilica Cistern is one of the most famous tourist attractions in Turkey.

7 Intersting Facts about the Basilica Cistern in Istanbul

  1. Ancient Engineering Marvel: The Basilica Cistern, also known as Yerebatan Sarnıcı, or the Justinian Basilica, was constructed in the 6th century during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I. It showcases the advanced engineering skills of the Byzantines, with its capacity to hold up to 80,000 cubic meters of water.
  2. Medusa Heads: One of the most intriguing features of the Basilica Cistern is the two Medusa heads used as column bases. These heads are believed to have been repurposed from earlier Roman structures, and their origin and purpose remain a mystery.
  3. Forest of Columns: The cistern is supported by 336 marble columns, each standing 9 meters tall. These columns are arranged in 12 rows of 28 columns each, creating a mesmerizing forest-like appearance.
  4. James Bond Connection: The Basilica Cistern gained international fame when it was featured in the 1963 James Bond film “From Russia with Love.” The cistern served as a secret meeting place in the movie, adding to its allure and mystique.
  5. Fish in the Cistern: Despite being an ancient water reservoir, the cistern is home to a variety of fish. These fish help keep the water clean by eating algae and other small organisms, contributing to the cistern’s unique ecosystem.
  6. Restoration and Preservation: Over the centuries, the Basilica Cistern has undergone several restorations to preserve its structural integrity. The most significant restoration took place in the 1980s, allowing it to be opened to the public as a historical site.
  7. Atmospheric Lighting: Today, the Basilica Cistern is illuminated with atmospheric lighting, enhancing its mystical and enchanting ambiance. The play of light and shadows on the water and columns creates a surreal experience for visitors, making it one of Istanbul’s must-see attractions.

Turkey’s Hidden Treasures: Discovering Its Many Cisterns

One of the things which have made Turkey such an interesting destination, are the many ancient cisterns which are buried beneath modern day Istanbul. In fact, the Basilica Cistern in Istanbul continues to attract a record number of tourists year after year, and once you have visited this particular cistern, it’s easy to see what the attraction is.

Basilica Cistern in Istanbul

The Basilica Cistern in Istanbul is just one of many cisterns which were constructed beneath Constantinople, or Istanbul as it is known today. What makes it unique is the fact that it’s the biggest cistern in the region.

The Basilica Cistern was originally constructed during the reign of Justinian, a prominent Byzantine Emperor. Based on current records, the area which houses the cistern was first home to an imposing Basilica that included lush gardens and an impressive colonnade.

Records also suggest that an estimated 7,000 slaves were used to build the cistern which later replaced the original Basilica. In fact, one of the support pillars within the cistern which can still be viewed to this day is decorated with various images, including an image of an eye with tears. Historians believe the tears were included as a tribute to the many slaves that perished during the construction of the cistern.

Covering an area of 105,000 square feet, the Basilica Cistern in Istanbul was capable of holding around a quarter of a million square cubic feet of water, or 100,000 tons of water; a valuable resource at the time.

Even if you don’t see the Basilica Cistern featured in all of our Egypt and Turkey tour packages, we can add it to any one of our tour itineraries. All of our tours are fully customizable and can be tailored to meet your exact needs.

Who Was Emperor Justinian?

Emperor Justinian I, also known as Justinian the Great, was a Byzantine emperor who reigned from 527 to 565 AD. He is one of the most notable rulers in Byzantine history, renowned for his ambitious and far-reaching efforts to restore the Roman Empire’s former glory. Here are some key points about Emperor Justinian:

  • Legal Reforms: Justinian is perhaps best known for his comprehensive codification of Roman law, known as the Corpus Juris Civilis or the Justinian Code. This legal code has had a lasting impact on the legal systems of many modern European nations.
  • Architectural Achievements: Under Justinian’s rule, many significant architectural projects were undertaken, including the construction of the Hagia Sophia, one of the most famous and enduring symbols of Byzantine architecture. The Basilica Cistern in Istanbul is another example of the grand infrastructure projects initiated during his reign.
  • Military Campaigns: Justinian sought to reconquer lost territories of the Western Roman Empire. His generals, particularly Belisarius and Narses, achieved significant military successes, reclaiming parts of North Africa, Italy, and Spain.
  • Religious Influence: Justinian was a devout Christian and played a crucial role in shaping the religious landscape of the Byzantine Empire. He sought to strengthen the Orthodox Church and suppress heretical movements, which sometimes led to religious conflicts.
  • Economic and Administrative Reforms: Justinian implemented various economic and administrative reforms to improve the efficiency and stability of the empire. These reforms included tax restructuring and efforts to combat corruption within the government.
  • The Plague of Justinian: During his reign, the empire was struck by a devastating pandemic known as the Plague of Justinian, which significantly reduced the population and weakened the empire’s economic and military strength.

Emperor Justinian’s reign was marked by both remarkable achievements and significant challenges. His legacy continues to influence modern law, architecture, and history.

Descending into the Depths: Exploring the Basilica Cistern in Istanbul

One of the most striking things about the cistern is that it was constructed largely of recycled materials, probably brought in from all over the Kingdom. Entrance to the cistern is by way of a stairway consisting of 52 steps, and the cistern itself it enclosed with a firebrick wall.

Another fascinating feature of the cistern is its elaborately curved roof, which together with the numerous support columns, helps to support the weight of all the earth above it.

Maintenance and Refurbishment

As is to be expected, the structural integrity of the Basilica Cistern in Istanbul has been in jeopardy several times due to the natural aging process. As a result, the cistern has been repaired and restored several times.

The first major restoration took place in 1723, followed by another major restoration which was ongoing from 1876 until 1909. Several other restoration projects took place during the years that followed, but the next major restoration happened in 1985.

Mud Removal and The Arrival Of Tourist Platforms

In 1985 the Istanbul Metropolitan Museum successfully removed an estimated 50,000 tons of mud, and invested a considerable amount of money into the construction of raised platforms which replaced the boats on which early tourists had to rely.
The Basilica Cistern in Istanbul as it stands today has been open to the public since 1987, although it did close temporarily in order to undergo another major cleanup operation in 1995.

From Russia With Love

Yes, James Bond has also visited the infamous Basilica Cistern in Istanbul during the filming of the 1963 movie: “From Russia With Love”. Whether the location had anything to do with it or not, the movie was a major success at the time.

If there is only one historical site in Turkey you really must see, it is without a doubt the Basilica Cistern in Istanbul. You can book you dream holiday right now by visiting our Egypt and Turkey tours. If you don’t see a tour you like, let us know, and we’ll tailor one just for you.

Other Attractions Worth Visiting Before or After the Basilica Cistern

The Basilica Cistern in Istanbul is surrounded by a wealth of other historical and cultural attractions. Here are some notable sites you can visit nearby:

  • Hagia Sophia – Just a short walk from the Basilica Cistern, the Hagia Sophia is a magnificent architectural marvel that has served as a cathedral, mosque, and now a museum. Its stunning dome and rich history make it a must-see.
  • Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmed Mosque) – Located near the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque is renowned for its beautiful blue tiles and impressive architecture. It remains an active place of worship, so visitors should be mindful of prayer times.
  • Topkapi Palace – A former royal residence, Topkapi Palace offers a glimpse into the opulent lifestyle of Ottoman sultans. The palace complex includes beautiful courtyards, gardens, and the famous Harem section.
  • Grand Bazaar – One of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world, the Grand Bazaar is a bustling hub of shops selling everything from spices and textiles to jewelry and souvenirs. It’s a great place to experience the vibrant local culture.
  • Gulhane Park– Adjacent to Topkapi Palace, Gulhane Park is a beautiful green space perfect for a leisurely stroll. It offers scenic views and a peaceful escape from the city’s hustle and bustle.
  • Spice Bazaar (Egyptian Bazaar) – Located near the New Mosque, the Spice Bazaar is a sensory delight with its array of spices, dried fruits, nuts, and sweets. It’s a smaller, more specialized market compared to the Grand Bazaar.
  • Suleymaniye Mosque – A bit further away but still within walking distance, the Suleymaniye Mosque is another architectural masterpiece by the famous Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan. It offers stunning views of the city and the Golden Horn.

Cisterna Basilica – Frequently Asked Questions

The Basilica Cistern in Istanbul is a treasure trove of history, engineering, and mystique. Below, find answers to some frequently asked questions about this fascinating site.

What is the Basilica Cistern?

The Basilica Cistern is an ancient underground water reservoir built in the 6th century during Emperor Justinian I’s reign.

Where is the Basilica Cistern located?

It is located in the Sultanahmet area of Istanbul, near the Hagia Sophia.

How much water can the cistern hold?

The Basilica Cistern can hold up to 80,000 cubic meters of water.

What are the Medusa heads in the cistern?

The cistern features two mysterious Medusa heads used as column bases, likely repurposed from earlier Roman structures.

How many columns are inside the cistern?

There are 336 marble columns, each standing 9 meters tall, arranged in 12 rows.

Is there an entrance fee to visit the Basilica Cistern?

Yes, there is an entrance fee. It’s best to check the latest pricing on the official Basilica Cistern website or local tourism sites.

Can you take photographs inside the cistern?

Yes, photography is allowed although flash is typically discouraged to preserve the ambiance and out of respect for other visitors.

When did the Basilica Cistern open to the public?

The cistern was opened to the public as a historical site in 1987 after significant restoration efforts.

Is the Basilica Cistern wheelchair accessible?

The site has ony has limited accessibility for wheelchair users because the stairs and uneven surfaces.

How long does a visit to the cistern usually take?

A typical visit lasts about 30 minutes to an hour, depending on your interest in exploring and photographing the site.

Are there guided tours available?

Yes, several tavel agents offer guided group tours to the site. However, for a more bespoke and more personalized experience, be sure to check out our high quality Turkey tour packages and/or our epic Egypt and Turkey combination tours. Because all of our tours are 100% customizable, it is therefore possible to visit only those attractions which matter the most to you.

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Last Updated on June 29, 2024