The Basilica Cistern

Built by Byzantine Emperor Justinian I in the 6th century to store fresh water for his palace and other buildings, the Basilica Cistern, or Cisterna Basilica, is the largest of several hundred ancient cisterns that lie beneath the city of Istanbul. An underground chamber about 9,800 square meters or 105,000 square feet in area, the Cistern is capable of holding 80,000 cubic meters of water. In ancient times, the water in the cistern came from the Eğrikapı Water Distribution Center in the Belgrade Forest, 19 kilometres (12 miles) north of the city. However, today it has very little water, to allow public access inside the cistern.

The interior of the cistern has several interesting architectural features. The ceiling is supported by 12 rows of 28 columns (336 marble columns in total), each 9 meters or 30 feet high and spaced 5 meters apart. The columns are mainly in Ionic and Corninthian styles, with the exception of a few Doric style columns. Perhaps the most striking architectural feature is the two heads of Medusa that can be found at the base of two columns in the left hand corner of the cistern. One of the heads is upside down and the other is sideways. The origin and reason behind the positioning of the heads remains a mystery.

Today, the cistern is one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions. From the entrance, located right across the street from the Hagia Sophia, there are 52 stone steps that descend into the cistern. Inside, there are several raised wooden platforms for visitors to walk and explore the interior of the cistern. Visitors can still feel water dripping from the ceiling, and observe several fish swimming in the water.


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