Istanbul Basilica Cistern, a suggestive journey beneath the surface

The Basilica Cistern is considered one of the most popular places in Istanbul. Located in Alemdar Mh. Yerebatan, very close to the blue mosque, it can take around 30 minutes to walk around and see all the details of Basilica Cistern but it’s worth every minute of your time.

Istanbul’s Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Sarnici, submerged palace in Turkish) is the largest cistern underground the beautiful Turkish city. The Basilica Cistern was built in the 6th century during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian to serve as a water storage for his own palace and other buildings around it. During the Ottoman rule, it was the water storage for the magnificent Topkapi Palace.

The construction, held up by 336 marble carved columns and covering 9,800 square meters, is fascinating, and the two Medusa heads covered with snakes give a mysterious look.

Istanbul’s Basilica Cistern seems like another world beneath modern street level.

The moment you walk downstairs, you will find yourself facing what looks like a magical colonnade. Look around and the seemingly endless columns will bring an instant effect on your mood. The sound, light effect, water and overall surroundings of the place takes you to another world. It is dark but sure pleasant to wander around, away from the hustle and bustle of street level.

Istanbul's Basilica Cistern

Gloomy Byzantine basilica cistern lies underneath Istanbul, fascinating remains of when the city was known as Constantinople.

Visually magnificent, it’s yet another proof of the Romans’ expertise in building hydraulic systems, and its eastern half carried on with tradition. It’s a mysterious place that, according to some research, took some 7,000 slaves to build for a capacity of some 80,000 cubic metres of water.

Your visit will take place along wooden boardwalks and you will see 336 massive pillars crowned with finely decorated Ionic and Corinthian capitals. Get off the corridor to admire the suggestive Medusa heads, one placed upside down and one at 90 degrees. This is very suggestive also for the meaning of the Medusa in the Greek mythology: a female monster whose hair was made of snakes and whoever would look at her directly in her eyes would become stone.

It is probably a recycled piece of artwork from another palace or monument, but officially, its origins are unknown, adding to the mystery.

If you are a better photographer than me, you will absolutely love snapping pictures of this suggestive underground cistern. It’s pretty dark so make sure you have a bright lens and a tripod.

Out of curiosity? It was the set for a scene of James Bond movie From Russia with Love.

How to visit Istanbul Basilica Cistern

Address of Istanbul Basilica Cistern: Alemdar Mh. Yerebatan
Istanbul Basilica Cistern entrance fee: 20 Lira per person
Opening hours of Istanbul Basilica Cistern: 9 am-5.30 pm

Other places to visit in Istanbul

The basilica cistern is not the only place worth your time in Istanbul. The Blue Mosque, a cruise along the Bosphorus, Topkapi Palace, the Grand Bazaar, the Spice Bazaar and the cathedral of Hagia Sophia are some other famous Istanbul attractions.

Hagia Sophia was an Orthodox Christian church built in the 6th century, later it was turned into an imperial mosque, and now is a museum.

In 1453 the building was converted into an Ottoman mosque until 1931. Since 1935 it has been open to the public as a museum. For its beauty and artistic styles, it is said to have changed the history of architecture. Located on the opposite side of the famous Sultan Ahmet Mosque (Blue Mosque), it’s very well preserved.

How to visit Hagia Sophia: practical information

Opening hours of Hagia Sophia: 9 am-7 pm during summer, to 5 pm during winter.
Entrance fee to Hagia Sophia: Ticket price is 40 Lira. Non-Turkish citizens’ children of 12 years or younger don’t need a ticket unless they want to visit the harem. For the harem 6 years old and younger don’t need a ticket.

Click here for more of the best landmarks in Istanbul.

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6 Comments
  1. Lucky me, checking in to your blog today. There’s a coincidence! :) We have fond memories of this place because our Turkish friend tried to convince the guy in the ticket booth we were Turkish. He believed her!?? We’ll have to go again because I didn’t have a digital camera at the time and I’ve lost all my photos from the first visit.
    Julia

    • A coincidence indeed, when I went to Istanbul I did have my digital camera, but I had just bought it and didn’t really know how to take pictures! Umm…not that now I’m a professional, but I definitely improved since then. I guess it means I *have* to go back to catch up with my missed shots ;)
      The underground cisterna is very beautiful, make sure you take great pics when you go :)

  2. I recently did a post on underground hotels and it seems that Turkey has a lot to offer in this realm. This is a beautiful photo, by the way!

  3. greeting from turkey. i visited your blog in coincidence. istanbul is great city and fascinating.there are a lot of places which they are historical. especially date from state of ottoman and byzantium. i hope that you had fun :)

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