A famous age-old proverb says “out of sight, out of mind” but this certainly does not apply to the famous Basilica Cistern of Istanbul, Turkey. At the bottom of a stone flight of stairs in the historical Sultanahmet district of Istanbul, a marvellous water reservoir captures overwhelming admiration from all that descend underground to see it.
Sitting close to the great Hagia Sophia, another iconic landmark of Turkey’s biggest city, the Basilica Cistern invites visitors to walk on platforms in among 336 9-meter high majestic columns sitting in calming, atmospheric lighting that holds up a ceiling very much resembling a cathedral. With classical background music playing softly, a shallow depth of water, surrounding the columns is home to medium sized fish that need a lot of care because attempts to clean the water could shock and kill them.
The Basilica Cistern is not the only underground water reservoir in Istanbul, yet it grabs fame, mostly because of its large size and two heads of Medusa sitting quietly at the back. No one knows their real purpose because they have never supported any columns. Believed to have come originally from another Byzantine building, discussions have long reigned as to why they are not upright and suggestions indicate, it was to prevent the legendary glaze that turned people to stone.
Called Yerebatan Sarayi in Turkish, general confusion is at odds with who built the cistern. Some sources say it was the Byzantine Emperor Justinian in 532, while others say he was responsible for the initial expansion, but it was the brainchild of Emperor Constantine.
Originally supplying the Byzantine imperial place with water, it fell into disrepair during Ottoman rule because they did not even know it existed. It was not until government officials observed locals pulling up buckets of water through the pavements that further investigation revealed the architectural masterpiece.
The International Fame of the Basilica Cistern in Istanbul
The Basilica Cistern is an unusual landmark, promoting it to achieve international fame in books and films. Mark Twain who visited Constantinople at the end of the 19th century wrote The Innocents Abroad that talked about his time in the city and became one of the best-selling travel books of all time. He was not impressed with Constantinople, in general, denouncing locals as cripples and calling the majestic Hagia Sophia, the rustiest barn in heathendom. Yet he was spell-blinded by the Basilica cistern.
Mark Twain wrote...
“We visited the Thousand and One Columns. I do not know what it was originally intended for, but they said it was built for a reservoir. It is situated in the centre of Constantinople. You go down a flight of stone steps in the middle of a barren place, and there you are. You are forty feet underground, and in the midst of a perfect wilderness of tall, slender, granite columns, of Byzantine architecture. Stand where you would, or change your position as often as you pleased, you were always a centre from which radiated a dozen long archways and colonnades that lost themselves in distance and the sombre twilight of the place.”
James Bond and Robert Langdon about the Basilica Cistern
Likewise, the dashing and handsome British spy, James Bond took a boat ride through the masses of stone columns in the film “From Russia with Love.” All it was real apart except for the fact that it is not under the Russian consulate.
In 2013, the famous and popular author Dan Brown wrote one of his bestselling novels called Inferno. The climax of the story finishes in the cistern as the main character Robert Langdon mistakenly assumes the stone flight of stairs leads to an underground nightclub. Eventually, his clues lead him back to the cistern and the deadly virus that will wipe out humanity that is hiding in a bag under the water.
In 2015, sources said the Basilica Cistern closed for 4 days to allow director Ron Howard to put the plotline of the Inferno book into one of his spellbinding films featuring Tom Hanks. However, the official website for the Basilica Cistern says filming took place in Budapest instead as there was too much risk of damage.
Information: The Basilica Cistern sitting on the Yerebatan Caddesi of the Sultanahmet district in Istanbul is open seven days a week from 9 am. It closes at 6.30pm in summer and 5.30pm in winter. You might also like to read our article about the Sultanahmet district and other landmarks to visit that are close by.