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Down in the Depths of Basilica Cistern.

Basilica Cistern in Istanbul.

Basilica Cistern, Istanbul.

Cover photo courtesy of Kurmanbeck.

September 2020.

It was a sunny morning in Istanbul as Sladja and I strolled through the ancient Eminönü district. As arguably the city’s most historic neighbourhood there was much to see. But for now we had decided to focus on just one fascinating and curious exhibit dating back to the 6th century.

Yerebatan Sarnici Istanbul map.

Down in the Depths of Basilica Cistern.

The Turks call it Yerebatan Sarnici, which roughly translates as Subterranean Cistern. In English, that has been adjusted to Basilica Cistern. Back in Istanbul’s Byzantine era the powers that be constructed around 70 cisterns, vast underground reservoirs that stored and filtered rainwater for city use. This particular cistern, commissioned by Justinian The Great in the 6th century, emerged from the site of an early Christian basilica.

Justinian The Great: Unimpressed by the fresh water storage situation.

“Guys, we need water”.

If we’d have visited during regular times there would’ve been a steady queue extending down the street. However, deep in the heart of the COVID mess, we were able to breeze straight through the door and pay the ridiculously low entrance fee of 20 Turkish Lira (around $1).

Basilica Cistern.

Entrance to the Basilica Cistern in Istanbul

The entrance to Basilica Cistern.

Free from the pressure of crowds, Sladja and I took our time descending the stone staircase that leads visitors down into Istanbul’s grand cistern. Within seconds the warmth of the morning had given way to a pleasingly cool and damp air. The brightness of the sunshine replaced by an initially thick gloom. Then, a gradually brighter amber glow as we reached the bottom of the steps.

Istanbul's historic Basilica Cistern.

A subterranean sight.

I had definitely never seen anything like it. A mammoth, cavernous space that, historians say, no less than 7000 slaves helped to construct. That can’t have been much fun for them.

A visit to the Basilica Cistern September 2020

Basilica cistern.

Justinian The Great’s primary aim was to create a water filtration system for his lavish Great Palace of Constantinople. Unfortunately, only a few remnants of that royal home remain today, which live in the Istanbul Archaeological Museum. Later, in around 1453, the system also provided water for Topkapi Palace.

Yerebatan Sarnici.

Visiting Basilica Cistern in Istanbul.

Basilica cistern.

By the mid 1500s much of the local public drew water from the cistern. Though in truth by this point it had become increasingly neglected by royalty and government. In fact, records of its use may have disappeared altogether if not for the famed scientist and explorer Petrus Gyllius.

Fascinated by stories he’d heard about it, Gyllius visited the cistern in 1565. Leaving a written account of his experience in a journal, he talked of locals rowing him between the stone columns and even catching a fish or two for supper!   

The history of Basilica Cistern.

Basilica cistern.

That morning Sladja and I found ourselves wowed by the very same columns. Apparently there are 336 of them, a veritable forest of marble delights as far as the eye can see. The walls, four metres thick, and indeed parts of the ceiling, are made of firebrick. Craning our heads, our eyes followed the columns all the way up to the capitals, carved in a number of styles, such as Ionic and Corinthian.

One of Basilica Cistern's 336 marble columns

A “capital” idea.

One magnificent column stands out from the crowd. They call it The Crying Column because of its decorative tears. Some historians say this is a tribute to the slaves who lost their lives constructing the cistern. In contrast, other experts reckon they are actually hens’ eyes.

The Crying Column.

The Crying Column Basilica Cistern.

Basilica cistern.

One thing they do agree on though is that the column was most likely inspired by similar pieces created for the Triumphal Arch of Theodosius I, erected in the 4th century.

The Crying Column in Basilica Cistern

Basilica Cistern.

The Crying Column is a historic gem. And yet, further down the cistern, there are two columns that truly steal the show. Both have spectacular bases with carved faces of Medusa!

This winged human female was perhaps one of the most misunderstood characters of Greek Mythology. Once a beautiful priestess of Athena, she was raped by the sea god Poseidon and then punished by Athena for breaking the vow of celibacy. Basically, she turned her into a monster with greenish skin and snakes for hair.

Medusa head column in Cistern Basilica

One of the Medusa columns at Basilica Cistern.

Eventually, such a monster had to be killed. Which is what the Greek hero Perseus duly did by beheading her. He subsequently used Medusa’s severed head to turn his enemies to stone. Talk about getting a rough deal.

Medusa Head Cistern Basilica.

Medusa: Having a bad day.

The heads in Basilica Cistern remain a bit of a mystery. While historians can’t be sure where exactly they came from, there is a general agreement that the emperor probably demanded their transfer from another late Roman era building in the city.

Basilica Cistern.

Medusa column base in Istanbul.

Medusa at Basilica Cistern.

Back in its heyday the cistern could hold up to 80.000 cubic metres of water! The water it stored came from a distribution plant in Belgrad Forest and was transported into the city’s network of cisterns via the grand Aqueduct of Valens

Aqueduct of Valens in Istanbul.

The Aqueduct of Valens.

Photo courtesy of  Mondo79.

On the day of our visit we noticed that the water level at Basilica Cistern was really shallow. Just deep enough to create an atmosphere, and for people to throw coins into the water and make a wish.

Throw a coin make a wish Basilica Cistern in Istanbul

Basilica Cistern.

We loved our stroll through Basilica Cistern. Indeed it was a highly atmospheric exhibit in which to consider the incredible history that has unfolded here over the centuries. Unsurprisingly, it has appeared in numerous Turkish movies and TV shows. Moreover, one of its Medusa heads features in Dan Brown’s bestselling novel Inferno.

Medusa at Basilica Cistern.

Basilica Cistern.

Most high profile of all, a scene of the 1963 James Bond movie From Russia With Love played out between Basilica Cistern’s historic columns. In the scene, Sean Connery as 007 travels in a rowboat under the city of Moscow in order to spy on the Soviet consulate with a periscope. Classic.

007 in Istanbul.

James Bond Basilica Cistern.

One place that, perhaps, nobody had been expecting him.

Back on that autumnal morning in 2020 Sladja and I were only able to visit a part of the cistern. This was due to the fact that a large chunk was under restoration. Since then, I see they’ve utterly transformed the place.

Exploring Basilica Cistern.

Basilica Cistern, September 2020.

Today it stands as much more of an art exhibit. There are modern sculptures set around the columns, for example, and short videos depicting Turkish history projected onto the walls. The place is now earthquake-proof, they say, while the murky water and coins have been replaced by crystal clear pools that periodically change colour.

The newly restored Basilica Cistern.

The all new singing and dancing Basilica Cistern. With Jellyfish.

Photo courtesy of Metuboy.

It certainly is a dramatic makeover. As a result, the group that runs the cistern recently announced that, as of 2023, the cost of entry will go up. From the 20 Lira we paid to a whopping 300 Lira per person (around $16). Times change, I guess, there is no holding back the constant drive for modernisation. Somehow, I’m glad we got to see the no-frills version. As for whether we would pay the money to see today’s attraction, we’re not sure, the jury is out.

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  • Stan

    leighton, you are truly back. another excellent article on a fascinating place. of course james bond was involved ha! the medusa heads are fabulous pieces of art. as for basilica cistern mk 2 it looks so impressive and yet yes i can see how it lacks the soul of its original incarnation. even at this early stage your istanbul series is shaping up to be a great one.

    July 5, 2023 - 3:23 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Cheers Stanley. Yes, trust Bond to get in on the action. I have no objections to the new Basilica Cistern, but unsure as to whether it would be worth us shelling out 32$ for the privilege. Sometimes the original feeling is better off left as it was. Thanks for the support, as ever. I feel there is depth to Istanbul’s sights, so looking forward to getting people’s reactions.

      July 5, 2023 - 4:01 pm Reply
  • Anna

    Absolutely marvellous! Have obviously seen it in the movies you mention and documentaries, but I really enjoyed your take on this magnificent place. A shame that I won’t get to see it the way you did, but I still think it’s a must see when I get to Istanbul. So looking forward to more of your posts from this fascinating city!!!

    July 5, 2023 - 3:38 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks so much Anna. Definitely a must-see if and when you go, and certainly a snazzier feel than the somewhat bare bones presentation we got. Grateful for your support and excited about the series ahead 🙂

      July 5, 2023 - 4:03 pm Reply
  • Marie

    Have just cancelled a trip to Istanbul – I’d have loved this!! Next year hopefully….

    July 5, 2023 - 4:03 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Sorry to hear you had to cancel your trip, Marie. Nothing too serious I hope. With a bit of luck you can reschedule for 2024, hope that this series give you a few extra ideas.

      July 5, 2023 - 4:18 pm Reply
      • Marie

        I’ll definitely be saving the series…. armchair travel for now but wi reschedule for next year

        July 5, 2023 - 5:40 pm
  • christinenovalarue


    July 5, 2023 - 4:50 pm Reply
  • anoush

    What an atmospheric place to wonder around! Would love to relive Gyllius’ experience being rowed about in between the columns and catching fish. 🙂 The two heads of Medusa are marvellous and thank you for setting the record straight when it comes to some proper ancient victim blaming. You convey your your visit beautifully, another excellent piece. Must’ve been difficult photographing this place, lighting can be tricky in underground spaces, but you did an amazing job!

    July 5, 2023 - 4:50 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Hey Anoush! Cheers, yes the photography side of things was tricky. The light down there was a real challenge, so I had to do some playing around in iPhoto to get them looking the way I wanted. Nothing too fancy, just lighter and closer to what I feel we actually saw. Oh yes, I would definitely have paid a few extra Lira to be rowed around ha ha.

      July 5, 2023 - 4:57 pm Reply
  • Leighton

    I’m with you on the craftsmanship of ancient folk. And always in such harsh conditions with limited resources compared to today. Thanks for dropping by Corna!

    July 5, 2023 - 4:59 pm Reply
  • Mallee Stanley

    What a unique experience and a pity to alter any of it (except the earthquake proofing)

    July 5, 2023 - 5:44 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      I agree wholeheartedly, but imagine the visuals were jazzed up for the Instagram/influencer crowd. Such is the way of things. Thanks for stopping by, Mallee.

      July 5, 2023 - 6:21 pm Reply
  • grandmisadventures

    wow, that is stunning! The whole subterranean ambiance with the glowing effect on the columns is mesmerizing… although probably don’t want to be mesmerized by Medusa. Why do they think the Crying Column could be hen eyes? Were hens significant? It seems much more gracious and lovely to say that it is to honor the slaves lost during the construction than celebrating dirty birds.

    July 5, 2023 - 6:34 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Hey Meg, so glad you enjoyed this write up of Basilica Cistern. You are right to flag the hen’s eye thing, I too wanted to know more about that. Sadly, I couldn’t find a justification from any of the online resources I checked. Just a vague reference to it. Like you I feel the tears for slaves (or slave’s tears perhaps) serves as much more logical and poetic symbolism.

      July 5, 2023 - 8:02 pm Reply
  • Lyssy In The City

    What an awesome experience! It really makes a difference being able to see things without the crowds. I should read Inferno, I think it has parts in Florence that we saw on our trip too.

    July 5, 2023 - 7:34 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      This location in particular was perfect without the crowds, as we could really drink in the silence and darkness. We could even hear the drips here and there as we walked. I haven’t red ‘Inferno’ either. ‘The Da Vinci Code’ was “ok” I thought, but never felt moved to read any of the others. Would be cool to place those Florence sights you visited though.

      July 5, 2023 - 8:07 pm Reply
  • Mike and Kellye Hefner

    What a fabulous place to visit, Leighton! I’m so glad you got to share the non-updated version with us, as the “modern” version doesn’t have as much appeal to me. Of course, you know we like the old stuff. I enjoyed learning the history and seeing your great photos – especially the Medusa heads and intricate carvings on the columns. The aqueduct is quite interesting too with the roads going through it. Great post, my friend!

    July 5, 2023 - 7:37 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thank you so much Kellye. Later during our stay we visited another cistern but I’m holding that one back for my second batch of Istanbul stuff. It would’ve been cool to see the aqueduct in person but somehow we missed it! Next time…

      July 5, 2023 - 8:11 pm Reply
  • Christie

    What an interesting walk through history. This is a tremendous work, and it must have been overwhelming to see that subterranean sight. Glad it is well maintained to this day. A great article Leighton!

    July 5, 2023 - 8:20 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thank you Christie, it’s a truly impressive sight, I’m glad a sense of that came across. Appreciate you contributing to the thread 🙂

      July 5, 2023 - 8:57 pm Reply
  • Memo

    Fascinating. Everything I have seen in brief photo explorations of Istanbul has been above ground. Thanks for getting down into hidden beauties. It’s a bit staggering to find out that I have actually seen this in movies without knowing it. Greatly appreciate all of the internal links. I get a great many of my questions answered there. Lots of hidden work there for you but worth it for me.

    July 5, 2023 - 10:22 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Cheers Memo, I’m glad this piece was of interest. Basilica Cistern does pop up in all kind of unexpected places, despite the actual location being far from a household name. I certainly couldn’t have named it before my trip to Istanbul. Thanks for the Connery tip, I have made the necessary edit.

      July 5, 2023 - 10:28 pm Reply
  • NortheastAllie

    It is amazing to see the architectural feats that have been accomplished in history, and this is definitely one of them!

    July 5, 2023 - 11:52 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Quite right, it really is an incredible accomplishment bearing in mind the resources of the day and the harsh conditions. I guess it always helps when you can get your hands on 7000 slaves!

      July 6, 2023 - 10:12 am Reply
  • Little Miss Traveller

    What a fascinating place to visit and without all the crowds, even better.

    July 6, 2023 - 12:53 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks for your comment, Marion.

      July 6, 2023 - 10:13 am Reply

    We’ve walked those same pathways between those columns, through the darkness with the black water below. One abiding memory is the fish…so many living way down there in the darkness beneath the city. 2012 we were there. A haunting place but superbly photogenic. So glad that like you we saw it before it became commercialised…it was spellbinding back then, possibly not so much now.

    July 6, 2023 - 1:24 am Reply
    • Leighton

      How cool that you saw fish down there. Not so much as a fin when we were there, in fact I think the water was mostly too shallow. Either way, the fish and the coins are long gone and most likely never to return. Thanks for dropping in!

      July 6, 2023 - 10:20 am Reply
  • kagould17

    What would today’s striking workers and craftsmen do if they did not want to complete a project in that day? I hope it was at least cool and shady down there when they built the cistern. Imagine such an amount of water in the day to use for city purposes. When we toured Palais Garnier Opera House in Paris, I was surprised to learn they had a huge cistern in the basement that was used to stabilize the opera house structure. If it was not kept filled exactly right, the construction might collapse due to the spongy ground it was built on. Cheers and thanks for sharing Leighton. Allan

    July 6, 2023 - 2:06 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Cool and shady in the summer I’m sure. However, I’m trying to picture what it may have been like while they worked through the winter. Fascinating about the Palais Garnier Opera House, that sounded like a recipe for disaster! Cheers Allan.

      July 6, 2023 - 10:31 am Reply
  • Laura

    It must have been particularly memorable to visit this place with so few other people around- much more atmospheric! The vaulted ceilings and grandness of the space really seem to override any risk of claustrophobia. My only comparable experience was visiting the catacombs in Paris which were not so spacious lol.

    July 6, 2023 - 2:45 am Reply
    • Leighton

      In one sense it is rather stark and bleak. But then you have those amazing columns and yes, the intricacy of the vaults. Mm, I would love to see those Paris Catacombs nonetheless. Thanks for reading Laura.

      July 6, 2023 - 10:34 am Reply
  • thomasstigwikman

    The basilica cistern is truly amazing. I’ve never heard the more complete story of Medusa. What a raw deal she got. This was a really well written article with great photos.

    July 6, 2023 - 4:31 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks Thomas. Like you, I hadn’t delved any deeper into Medusa’s backstory until the writing of this article moved me to do so. Appreciate the read and comment!

      July 6, 2023 - 10:36 am Reply
  • Travels Through My Lens

    Thanks for taking us on a tour of the Basilica Cistern; it’s quite intriguing. It’s always disappointing when attempts to modernize a place fall flat; singing jellyfish? It truly is an amazing structure, and I enjoyed your perspective. Great post Leighton!

    July 6, 2023 - 6:07 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Yeah, singing jellyfish. Coming to a million Instagram accounts soon! Thanks for checking in Tricia.

      July 6, 2023 - 10:38 am Reply
  • Rebecca

    I also visited the Basilica Cistern during my trip to Istanbul the year prior to you (and before COVID times), and it was a haunting, but mesmerizing experience. To go from the heat of the outside to the cool and damp respite indoors, it was very refreshing indeed. Like you, I also paid only 20 TL to get in, and it’s unbelievable that it’ll increase fifteen fold! Looks like we got there before it’ll get expensive!

    July 6, 2023 - 6:39 am Reply
    • Leighton

      It’s always cool to recognise these shared experiences. And experiences that are now gone, forever replaced. Thanks for reading, Rebecca.

      July 6, 2023 - 10:40 am Reply
  • Lookoom

    You had a great tour of the Cistern, when I visited there wasn’t so much lighting around unfortunately.

    July 6, 2023 - 7:04 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Ha, that must have been an adventure. Poor lighting would be something of a safety hazard I’d imagine? Plenty of opportunities to stumble, trip and all the rest of it. Still, an adventure I’m sure…

      July 6, 2023 - 10:43 am Reply
  • Toonsarah

    While we have to feel for the slaves forced to build this, it has to be said that the result is stunning! The brickwork is beautiful and the forest of columns creates a magical atmosphere. The Medusa columns are fascinating too. As for what’s been done to it since, I would certainly pay to see it but whether I’d feel the same if I’d previously done so is another question.

    July 6, 2023 - 4:42 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      We really enjoyed the ambience of the place. And it’s that ambience that I feel has probably gone now. Replaced by some impressive but perhaps inauthentic art installations. Had we not seen it the first time around I guess, like you, we would be up for it. Thanks for popping in, Sarah.

      July 6, 2023 - 11:35 pm Reply
  • Monkey's Tale

    As I read I thought I’m definitely making sure this is on the list, but seeing the renovations and the fee…maybe not 😊 Maggie

    July 6, 2023 - 8:23 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      I guess it comes down to whether one is prepared to deal with the new glitzy makeover. The route they’ve gone down certainly guarantees greater foot traffic. Drawing in the kind of visitor who is invariably more impressed with gaudy colours and images that look good on an Instagram selfie. It’s a pity, because it is such an historic place. Those Medusa heads and crying columns are worth the fee alone. Hopefully nobody decided to decorate them all with tinsel and Christmas lights.

      July 6, 2023 - 11:42 pm Reply
  • bronlima

    Stunning photos accompanied with fascinating details. Really good to see you back!

    July 7, 2023 - 5:15 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Cheers, Geoff!

      July 7, 2023 - 7:09 pm Reply
  • WanderingCanadians

    It must have been strange to be here during the start of the pandemic. Glad you managed to take advantage of the lack of tourists and not have to wait in long lines or deal with the crowds. Your pictures of the Basilica Cistern are beautiful and give the sense that you had the place all to yourselves, which I’m sure felt special. That’s quite the jump in price by the way!

    July 7, 2023 - 3:16 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks for reading. We were fortunate to have experienced this place at a special time, and will always be grateful for that. For that reason I would imagine we’ll never get round to seeing the current incarnation.

      July 7, 2023 - 7:11 pm Reply
  • qprgary

    The skill of these guys that long ago with only hand tools which we would chuck out just amazes me. As for the slaves I guess it’s work or die.

    July 7, 2023 - 6:00 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      As opposed to work and die. Either way, death was never very far away it seems. They did an amazing job, as you say. Thanks for checking out my piece on Basilica Cistern Gary.

      July 7, 2023 - 7:12 pm Reply
  • travelling_han

    I loved the basilica cistern, it was my favourite thing in Istanbul 🙂

    July 7, 2023 - 10:33 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks, it’s definitely among our favourites!

      July 7, 2023 - 10:43 pm Reply
  • elizabethleslie333

    I love this place so much, I think I remember it in my dreams sometimes, the Medusa is really 🤩

    August 9, 2023 - 9:08 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Hey Elizabeth, thanks for reading and saying hi. Medusa is a definitely a highlight but as much as I like the place I’m not sure I’d welcome Basilica Cistern into my dreams 😉

      August 9, 2023 - 9:26 pm Reply
      • elizabethleslie333

        I thought of that after I wrote it too! Hah I think I meant more like my daydream/memory flashes. It’s been 12 or so years since I was there, but I still vividly remember it, it definitely has a haunting quality about it!

        August 9, 2023 - 10:11 pm

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