Basilica Cistern History

Basilica Cistern History: Unveiling the Depths

The Basilica Cistern, known as "Yerebatan Sarnıcı" in Turkish, is an ancient underground water storage facility located in Istanbul, Turkey. The history of Basilica Cistern took in existence during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I in the 6th century. The cistern was built to supply water to the Great Palace of Constantinople and nearby buildings, especially during sieges. Measuring approximately 138 meters long and 64 meters wide, it has a capacity of 80,000 cubic meters of water. 

The structure is supported by 336 marble columns, each 9 meters high, arranged in 12 rows of 28 columns. Notably, two columns feature the heads of Medusa, one placed sideways and the other upside down, which are believed to be repurposed from earlier Roman monuments. The cistern fell into disuse after the Ottoman conquest in 1453 but was rediscovered and cleaned in the 16th century by the scholar Petrus Gyllius. 

Today, it stands as a testament to Byzantine engineering and an important historical site in Istanbul.

Chronicles of the Basilica Cistern: A Historical Timeline

The history about Basilica Cistern states that it was commissioned by Emperor Justinian I in 532 AD and originally supplied water to Byzantine palaces and public buildings. Throughout its history, it underwent significant renovations: repaired by Emperor Constantine IX Monomachos in the 11th century, revisited by historian Petrus Gyllius in the 14th century, and maintained by Ottoman efforts in the 16th century. In the modern era, it was restored and opened to the public in 1987, showcasing its architectural marvels and historical significance as a prominent tourist destination in Istanbul.

Byzantine Era, 6th Century

The Basilica Cistern, or "Yerebatan Sarnıcı," was constructed in 532 AD during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I. It was built to provide a reliable water supply to the Great Palace of Constantinople and surrounding areas. The cistern, measuring 138 meters by 64 meters, is capable of holding 80,000 cubic meters of water. Supported by 336 marble columns, each standing 9 meters high, the structure reflects the grandeur of Byzantine engineering. The cistern's construction involved repurposing materials from earlier Roman structures, notably the Medusa head columns, which are a significant highlight for visitors. This underground marvel was essential in ensuring a continuous water supply, especially during sieges, and played a crucial role in the daily life of Byzantine Constantinople.

Basilica Cistern Architecture >>

Ottoman Era, 16th Century

After the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453, it fell into disuse and was largely forgotten contributing significantly to Basilica Cistern’s history. It was rediscovered in 1545 by the French scholar Petrus Gyllius, who was exploring Byzantine antiquities. Gyllius noted the cistern's vast size and historical importance, prompting interest in its preservation. The Ottomans, recognizing its significance, cleaned and maintained the cistern, though it was no longer used to supply water to the palace. Instead, it served as a water source for the Topkapi Palace gardens and nearby buildings. This period marked a shift from the cistern's original function to a more utilitarian role, ensuring the continuation of its maintenance and partial restoration.

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Modern Era, 20th Century

In the modern era, particularly during the 20th century, the Basilica Cistern’s history changed as it underwent several restoration efforts to preserve its architectural integrity and historical significance. It was opened to the public in 1987 as a museum, showcasing the ingenuity of Byzantine engineering. Today, the cistern is a major tourist attraction, offering visitors an atmospheric glimpse into Istanbul's past. Its interior, illuminated by soft lighting and accompanied by classical music, provides a unique experience that highlights its historical and cultural importance. The Medusa heads and the haunting beauty of the submerged columns continue to fascinate visitors, making the Basilica Cistern a cherished landmark of Istanbul.

Present-Day Basilica Cistern: A Modern Marvel

The Basilica Cistern, built in the 6th century under Emperor Justinian I, served as a water storage facility for Byzantine Constantinople. It is located southwest of Hagia Sophia and covers an area of 9,800 square meters. Supported by 336 columns, some recycled from earlier structures, the cistern has a capacity of 80,000 cubic meters of water. Over the centuries, it has been a vital part of the city's infrastructure, surviving various renovations and rediscoveries. Today, it is a renowned tourist attraction, admired for its historical significance, architectural grandeur, and mystical atmosphere enhanced by the iconic Medusa head columns.

Construction of The Basilica Cistern

  • Construction Period: Basilica Cistern's history dates back to 532 AD during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I.
  • Purpose: Provided water to the Great Palace of Constantinople and surrounding areas.
  • Labor Force: Constructed by approximately 7,000 slaves of which, many perished during the process.
  • Dimensions: Measures 138 meters long, 64 meters wide, and 9 meters high, with a storage capacity of 80,000 cubic meters.
  • Structural Support: Supported by 336 marble columns, each 9 meters tall, arranged in 12 rows of 28 columns.
  • Materials Used: Many columns were repurposed from earlier Roman structures, including iconic Medusa head columns.
  • Water Source: Fed by aqueducts from the Belgrade Forest, providing a continuous supply of fresh water.
  • Architectural Features: The columns and the vast underground space showcase the ingenuity and engineering prowess of Byzantine architects.


Who built the Basilica Cistern?

Basilica Cistern history records the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I as the ruler who ordered the construction of the massive structure.

Where was the Basilica Cistern built?

The Basilica Cistern was built underneath the ancient Illus Basilica, which was located right across from the legendary Hagia Sophia. It was located in Constantinople, the capital city of the Byzantine Empire which is currently Turkey’s capital, Istanbul.

When was the Basilica Cistern discovered?

According to Basilica Cistern Istanbul history, it was discovered in the mid-sixteenth century by the Dutch traveller P Gyllius, who was looking for ancient Byzantine ruins lost in the old capital of the empire.

Why did Emperor Justinian build the Basilica Cistern?

The Basilica Cistern was constructed by Emperor Justinian to ensure a continuous supply of filtered water to the imperial residence at Great Palace and other royal residences in Constantinople.

What is the importance of the Basilica Cistern?

The Basilica Cistern was historically important for its role in supplying water to the emperor as well as the royals in the Byzantine empire and the imperial Topkapi Palace of the Ottoman Sultans. In modern times, the Basilica Cistern is significant as it is the only surviving stunning architectural relic from the Byzantine era that represents Byzantine architecture at its finest. It is a treasure trove for historians and art enthusiasts who wish to study the Byzantine period.

What is the story behind the Medusa in the Basilica Cistern?

Two Medusa heads, used as column bases, were likely brought from a Roman building or a temple. One head is upside down, and the other is tilted to the side, theorized to ward off evil spirits or symbolic of the subjugation of the Gorgons by Byzantine Emperor Justinian I.

What is the purpose of the Basilica Cistern today?

Today, the Basilica Cistern serves as a popular tourist attraction and museum in Istanbul. You can explore its ancient architecture, learn about Byzantine water systems, and experience its atmospheric ambience enhanced by dim lighting and classical music.

Which movie was filmed in Basilica Cistern?

The Basilica Cistern was featured in the James Bond movie "From Russia with Love" in 1963. It served as a backdrop for several scenes, showcasing its unique architecture and historical allure on the big screen.

Why does the Basilica Cistern have water in it?

Originally built to store water for the Great Palace of Constantinople, the Basilica Cistern continues to hold water today, though it is not used for its original purpose. The water level is maintained to provide a historical context and enhance the visitor experience.

Is Medusa's Tomb Within the Cistern of the Basilica?

There is no evidence to suggest that Medusa's tomb is located within the Basilica Cistern. The Medusa heads found here are believed to have been reused from earlier Roman structures and placed in the cistern for architectural and possibly symbolic reasons.


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