Basilica Cistern Istanbul

Updated: Sep 19, 2021

The Basilica Cistern

Turkish people call it as "The Sunken Palace" (Yerebatan Sarnıcı) and it is known as the "Basilica Cistern". The Cistern was built between 527-656 AD by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I. The aim of constructing such an architecture was to store fresh water for the palace.


The Basilica Cistern is located in the center of Istanbul (Turkey) and is very close to Hagia Sofia and Sultan Ahmet Mosque. 336 columns are holding erect the cistern which is 140 meters long and 70 meters wide. Each column is 9 meters high and the distance between the columns is 4,80 meters. There are 12 rows and each of them has 28 columns. The head of the columns have different features and are reflecting the Corinthian and Dorian style. The estimated water storage is about 100.000 tons which is placed on a 9.800 sqm area.


The Medusa Heads in the Cistern

There are two columns which are supported with Medusa heads. These two columns which are located in the northwest edge of the cistern have style of Roman period. The mystery is that it is still unknown from where the heads have been brought or taken and why.


There are many hypothesis but researchers and historians are still working on it. As there are many information about Medusa from Greek Mythology, there is no connection between Byzantine and the heads in the cistern. We know that the head of Medusa was also used as ornament on the handles of swords during Byzantium time which gives us a little idea.



About the Cistern

During the reign of Byzantium, the Basilica Cistern was used to supply fresh water needs to the great palace and its neighbour buildings. After the conquest of the city of Constantinople in 1453, it was used for a short period and water was supplied to Topkapı Palace. However, the Ottomans preferred running water over still water, and established their own water facilities in the city.


Basilica Cistern the fresh water supply of the Byzantine Palace

A Dutch traveller named P.Gyllius who came to Istanbul in order to make researches (1544-1550) on Byzantine rediscovered and introduced it to the western world. Therefore we understand that the cistern was not used thereafter until the mid XVI century.

Dan Brown's Inferno and Basilica Cistern

Inferno by Dan Brown

In his last book named "Inferno" which is one of the blockbuster serie of The Da Vinci Code, Angels & Demons, and The Lost Symbol, Dan Brown masterfully fused history, art, codes, and symbols. The Basilica Cistern takes place in this new thriller which gives the readers an idea about the historical ancient place.


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