Basilica Cistern Architecture

Construction of Basilica Cistern

One of the most intriguing ancient sites of Istanbul, the Basilica Cistern was constructed on the orders of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I in the sixth century. Located within a walking distance of the legendary Hagia Sophia, Istanbul’s largest surviving Byzantine cistern had 336 marble columns and was an underground water reservoir.

More than 100 metres high, the structure of Basilica Cistern is rectangular and can be accessed by a 52-step stairway. The 336 marble columns are nine metres tall and stand in twelve rows of 28 columns each. Most columns are Corinthian or Ionic, while some are in the Dorian style. The walls are 4.8 metres tall, and the cistern has a size of 9,800 square metres.

The Basilica Cistern was a water filtering facility for the Great Palace and its royal surroundings. Basilica Cistern architecture in ancient times included gardens surrounded by a colonnade which faced the Hagia Sophia. The huge cistern was forgotten when the Byzantines relocated from their Great Palace. After being rediscovered, the Ottomans made it a dumping ground for junk and corpses. It was in the 1980s that it was renovated and opened to tourists.

Explore the Architecture of Basilica Cistern

Columns of Basilica Cistern

A crucial feature of the Basilica Cistern architecture is the 336 marble columns on which the structure of Basilica Cistern stands. The largest surviving underground cistern of Istanbul once had a courtyard with a portico and marble columns. The 336 columns of present-day Basilica Cistern were constructed under Byzantine Emperor Justinian, and are made of marble and granite which rise to a height of nine metres.

They are arranged in twelve rows in groups of 28 columns, each spaced around five metres apart. The columns are mostly Corinthian or Ionic, with a few in the Dorian style. Many columns were recycled from older structures from various parts of the Byzantine empire.

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Underground Cathedral

The Basilica Cistern was constructed underneath a Byzantine-era Basilica, the Illius Basilica, which gave the structure its name. Located across the street from Hagia Sophia, the underground cistern is the size of a cathedral. It measures 143 metres in length and 65 metres in width and can hold up to 80,000 cubic metres of water.

The cistern was a water-filtering facility that transported water through two vast Byzantine-era aqueducts to the Great Palace and other imperial residences of Istanbul’s First Hill. Upon its rediscovery under the Ottomans, it was used to transport water to their imperial residence at the Topkapi Palace for a while, after which it lost much of its importance.

Head of Medusa

An intriguing feature of Basilica Cistern architecture is the presence of Medusa within the structure. Medusa was a Gorgon in Greek mythology, a winged woman who had a head full of living venomous snakes instead of hair and could turn people to stone with her gaze. Her figurines were installed in important structures of ancient times to ensure protection.

Two columns in the northwest corner of the Basilica Cistern stand on blocks that are carved with Medusa’s head. The origins of the two heads are unknown, but they are believed to have been brought from a Late Roman building. Their use in their previous location is not known either.

One of the heads has been positioned sideways, which would negate the power of Medusa’s gaze as per tradition. Another head, however, has been placed in an inverted position, which is not explained in tradition or the cistern’s construction. While the head placed sideways was positioned in such a manner to accommodate its size as per the column, the same could not be said about the inverted head. It is believed that the inverted head was of the right size for the column, but was not placed right side up to lessen the Gorgon’s powerful gaze.


What attractions are near Basilica Cistern?

The Basilica Cistern is located across the street from the legendary Hagia Sophia. Prominent attractions near the structure include the Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Sultanahmet Square, Dolmabahce Palace, Galata Tower, and Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar.

How old is the Basilica Cistern?

The architectural marvel of the Basilica Cistern dates back to its construction in 532 CE, making this historic structure nearly 1,500 years old today. Explore the enduring beauty and engineering brilliance of Basilica Cistern architecture.

How was the Basilica Cistern built?

The Basilica Cistern architecture came together due to the efforts of more than 7,000 slaves, many of whom died during its construction. The 336 columns built of marble and granite are the main support of this enormous underground water reservoir. Some of the columns and column pedestals came from old structures within the empire.

Why did the Romans construct the Basilica Cistern?

The population of the city was much more than what could be sustained on the water that came from wells. Thus, large underground cisterns were constructed throughout the city to store water that would otherwise be lost to the seas. The Basilica Cistern, the largest underground water reservoir, primarily transported water to the royal residences and the Great Palace.

What is the function of the Basilica Cistern?

The Basilica Cistern was used to transport water to the Great Palace and royal residences during the Byzantine era. Under the Ottomans, the cistern supplied water to the Topkapi Palace for a brief period, after which it was neglected. In present times, it is a popular attraction among tourists, who flock here in huge numbers.


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