I never thought I would ever say in my life how a cistern became one of my favourite places to visit of all time. I was simply in awe whilst walking through the aisles of the Basilica Cistern in Istanbul, so impressed with the way they managed to use and conserve a space that was built in 532! Commissioned by Emperor Justinian, it is the largest surviving Byzantine cistern in Istanbul. It was constructed using 336 columns, some salvaged from ruined temples – you will see two random Medusa heads serving as base for a column. No one really knows how this was to be, but likely recycled from some other structure. This place if full of mysteries, regardless of its very practical use.
The cistern was used to store water for the Great Palace during Byzantine times and the for the Topkapi Palace (previous post) under the Ottoman Empire. It was able to store up to 80,000 cubics meters of water, delivered via 20 km long acqueducts from a reservoir near the Black Sea. It was closed for some time when the Byzantine emperors relocated from the Great Palace but it was rediscovered sometime before the Ottomans conquered the city, by a French scholar, Petrus Gyllius. He was in town researching Byzantine antiquities and was told by locals they were able to get water by lowering buckest into a dark space below their basement floors. The scholar pursued an investigation, exploring the neighborhood and finanlly discovering the cistern through one of the basements. I can only imagine how thrilled it must have been – it is indeed like an underground basilica, a secret sacred place. Still, the Ottomans were not impressed, and unfortunately didn’t treat this place with the respect it deserved, serving as a dumpster – throwing in there all sorts of junk, including corpses.
It was in 1985 that the cistern was cleaned and fully renovated by the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality, opening to the public in 1987. In 2017 other restoration works were finalised – including fortifying the structures to protect against earthquakes, and adding new lighting too. And now whilst visiting this amazing place you will also see a sculpture exhibition that only adds to the significance of the place.
If there is something you absolutely should not skip is the visit to the Basilica Cistern. It is simply a unique experience, and it makes you really wonder how the Byzantines were able to put this amazing structure together, underground, making use of previous roman columns.
The Medusa heads are quite a mystery, as everything surrounding the myth of her is. It is common knowledge that staring into Medusa’s eyes would turn you into stone, which is likely why the heads are upside down. Medusa was one the the three Gorgons, the most beautiful, who was once raped by Poseidon in a temple dedicated to Athena. The Goddess took her revenge upon Medusa, turning her hair into snakes and cursing her with the stoned stare. Medusa would eventually be killed by Perseus, who cut off her head. A very well known myth, yet I believe one that is so unfair to poor Medusa – simply a victim of the impulsive Gods. Some also think the presence of the heads were to grant protection to the cistern.
Everything does feel mystical and magical in this place. The lights added to the structure change colour and therefore the atmosphere. The sculptures reflect upon the clean water. Take your time when you are in there if you can, and try to avoid the crowds, which can be difficult. I actually waited in a corner for about fifteeen minutes for a school group to leave the premises. They were noisy. This is a place that needs to be appreciated in peace, to be respected for what it is – much more than a cistern with a practical use – store water – an incredible and mysterious masterpiece of architectural genius, built over 1400 years ago.
Yet, of course such place was the scenery for big Hollywood. I did not know this whilst visiting, but my research enlightened me. A James Bond movie, From Russia with Love, and also the adaptation to the big screen of Inferno by Dan Brown, starring Tom Hanks. I found the clips on Youtube. The James Bond one is particularly interesting, since this was filmed before the cistern was properly restored and opened for visitors in 1987.
The one from Inferno is of course a lot more recent, so you can see the fighting scene happening in the wodden paths where you walk today.
What do you think? If I remember correctly, the entry ticket is 200 Turkish Lira (approx £8/$10). Definitely worth it!