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Why Should You Visit the Basilica Cistern (LIST)
- Basilica Cistern is one of the most remarkable historical sites in Istanbul and a very popular tourist attraction as well. It takes 2nd place in our top list; “things to do in Istanbul”
- The Basilica Underground Cistern AKA Sunken Palace Cistern offers a unique and captivating experience as an ancient historical value,
- Its marvellous architecture consists of big columns, arches and vaulted ceilings.
- The stunning atmosphere provides captivating opportunities for photography.
- The mystical legend of Medusa stays there with two Medusa heads upside-down (The two Medusa heads used as pedestals under the two columns located in the northwest corner of the cistern are considered masterpieces of Roman sculpture, dating back to the IVth century. Although there is no certainty regarding the bodies of these heads, it is believed that they were dismantled from an ancient structure from the Young Roman Age and brought here)
- There is a serene silence that offers respite from the noise and chaos of the outside world.
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- “The sunken palace is located in a very convenient area – Sultan Ahmet Square – which is in the center of Istanbul’s old city. It is within walking distance of other famous historical attractions such as Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. Therefore, it is highly recommended to include this palace in your itinerary when visiting this part of Istanbul.”
- Tasty cultural experience with sophisticated Byzantine architecture that showcases the importance of water management even in ancient times.
- With this amazing atmosphere, it is hardly surprising that the Basilica Cistern has been the setting for many international films. Here you can feel scenes from Dan Brown’s “Inferno” with Tom Hanks, James Bond’s “From Russia with Love”, “The International” with Clive Owen and “The Accidental Spy” with Jackie Chan.
Tips for Basilica Cistern
- Attraction Type :Historical Site, Museum
- Entrance Fee : Approximately 21 $
- Visiting Time (hours): 1
- Dress Code: CASUAL
- Special Tips:The Basilica Cistern is also used as a venue for all kinds of events due to its fantastic acoustics and magnificent surroundings. If you have the rare opportunity to attend a concert here, don’t miss it!
- Open: Everyday 9:00 am-7:00 pm
Our journey begins with the building adjacent to Hagia Sophia, which was previously used as the exit of the cistern. The first experience of the space is realized by descending down the steel stairs to the water, which is the reason for the existence of the cistern. Once the traveler reaches the foyer, which meets the water at the same level, they will experience the Basilica cistern from the water level. The foyer also houses an exhibition that tells the history of the structure and Istanbul’s waterways. As we continue our journey, we will be able to experience the cistern from different angles while walking on a metal, semi-transparent platform. The platform also doubles as a stage for various events as we move deeper into the cistern. In this mystical space, which can also become a stage for different artists every year, we will be accompanied by fish that enrich biodiversity and contribute to the cleanliness of the water. The metal grid platform tends to disappear in the space where it exists, while the designed light scenario makes the extraordinary historical structure stand out.
Who built the Basilica Cistern, and who rediscovered it after the conquest of Istanbul?
The Sunken Palace is also known as the Basilica Cistern as it is located under the Stoa Basilica. Basilica Cistern was built in 532 by Emperor Justinian in Istanbul. Its purpose was to provide water to the nearby palace. After the Ottomans conquered Istanbul in 1453, the cistern was used to supply water to the gardens of Topkapi Palace where the sultans resided. However, it was later abandoned and rediscovered by a Dutch traveler named P. Gyllius in 1544-1550 while investigating Byzantine ruins. Upon discovering the cistern, Gyllius exclaimed, “I went down the stairs with the landlady and found myself in a forest of pillars filled with water.”
Structure of the Basilica Cistern
The cistern is a large structure that spans a rectangular area of 140 meters in length and 70 meters in width. There are a total of 336 columns inside the cistern, each standing at a height of 9 meters. Access to the cistern is provided by a 52-step stone staircase. The columns are placed at a distance of 4.80 meters from each other, creating 28 rows with 12 columns in each row.
Visitors are greeted at the entrance of the sunken palace turkey by the columns rising from the water that resembles a vast forest. These columns support the weight of the ceiling through round, cross-shaped vaults and arches. Most of the columns are made from a single piece of marble or granite, and many appear to have been collected from older buildings. Some are made of two pieces stacked on top of each other. The capitals of the columns feature different styles, with 98 reflecting the Corinthian style and some reflecting the Doric style. The cistern’s brick walls, which are 4.80 meters thick, and the brick-paved floor were made waterproof by applying a thick layer of Horasan mortar. The cistern boasts a total area of 9,800 square meters and can hold approximately 100,000 tons of water.
The water of the cistern, the construction of which was carried out by 7 thousand slaves, was brought from the Eğrikapı water distribution center in the Belgrade forests, 19 kilometers from the city, with the help of the 971-meter-long Valens (Bozdoğan) arch built by Emperor Valens in (368) and the 115.45-meter-long Maglova Arch built by Emperor Justinianus. The majority of the columns in the cistern are cylindrical, except for a few that are angular or fluted. Among these columns, the one decorated with carved and embossed Peacock’s Eye, Drooping Branch, and Tear shapes is particularly noteworthy. This column is similar to the columns in the triumphal arch of the great Theodosius IV (379-395), whose remains can be found in Beyazıd Square today, called “Farum Tauri” in the Byzantine period.
Lighting Design of the Basilica Cistern
Conceptually, the spatial story of light anticipates different perceptual scenarios. The journey that begins towards the depths of the cistern gives the feeling of being in a two-dimensional forest with the effect of light coming from behind the columns. This two-dimensional illusion is inspired by traditional miniature art. Perspective is therefore not of central importance and tends to disappear. We can characterize it as an emulation of the two-dimensional art of the eastern world.
From this perspective, at the beginning of your journey, you are enveloped by the two-dimensional silhouette of a forest of columns and find yourself in a timeless place, as in the experience of the first explorers. For this reason, each column is illuminated from ground level with elliptical beam lighting elements positioned opposite to the direction of movement.
The gradual diminishing of light as we travel deeper into the cistern offers the visitor a sense of archaeological and personal discovery. The Medusa-headed columns reached on this journey represent the end of the outward journey and the beginning of the return journey. The upside down Medusas are two mythological figures representing the flow of life. So much so that at this point the return journey is suddenly interrupted and there is a moment of reflection. When you set off again, the two-dimensional world is interrupted to make room for the three-dimensional world that reveals the structural and architectural aspects of the cistern. Here, the transition takes place from the two-dimensional perception of the eastern world, which exhibits a subtle mastery, to the three-dimensional perception of the western world, which is formed by the art of light and shadow.
The colors used in the lighting design are inspired by the transformation of Sultanite stone, a diaspora native to Anatolia, into turquoise when exposed to natural light and amber vibrations when exposed to the light of a torch.
In the middle of the journey, the visitor perceives the space entirely differently, with sudden transitions between turquoise and amber colors that symbolize the character of this land. The experience gained through the transformation at this point brings with it the essence of chromatic perception.
Basilica Cistern has undergone various repairs since its foundation until today. The first repair of the cistern, restored twice during the Ottoman Empire, was carried out by the architect Kayserili Mehmet Aga during the reign of Ahmet III in the 18th century. In the 19th century, the second major repair was during the reign of Sultan Abdülhamit II (1876-1909). The most significant repair in the Republican period was made in 1985. With the removal of 50 thousand tons of mud and the construction of the sightseeing platform, it was completed and reopened to visitors on September 9, 1987. The interior and lighting design of the Basilica Cistern underwent restoration in 2016 and reopened on July 21, 2022.