The Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan sarnıcı) in Istanbul

Medusa heads in Basilica cistern Istanbul

There are a lot of great historical places in Istanbul, but one of the most famous and popular is Basilica Cistern, or Yerebatan sarnıcı in turkish. Located in Sultanahmet, old city center, near the Hippodrome square, this cistern is really worth a visit.

The cistern was connected to an unique water system which included also Theodosius cistern, Binbirdirek cistern and Valenta aqueduct. Archaeologists think that there are still more cisterns under historical part of the city, which were also connected to othee cisterns.

So let’s take a look at one of the most beautiful underground cisterns in Istanbul — Basilica — with IstanbulPoints.com.

Brief History Of Basilica

Basilica cistern in Istanbul

The Basilica Cistern, also referred to as the Sunken Cistern is found in Istanbul Turkey, and it is one of the largest. Situated on the historical Sarayburnu peninsula, it was constructed when the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I ruled, in the 6th century.

The cistern is a giant building covering a rectangular area of 140 meters in length and 70 meters in width. Covering a total area of 9,800 square meters, this cistern has a water storage capacity of approximately 100,000 tons. There are 336 columns that support the vaulted ceiling, each 9 meters high, which is descended by a stone staircase with 52 steps. These columns, which are located 4.80 meters apart, form 12 rows, each containing 28 columns. Many of the columns, most of which were found to be collected from older structures and carved from various types of marble, consist of a single piece and some of them are made of two pieces.

The titles of these columns have different features in places. While 98 of them reflect the Corinthian style, some of them reflect the Doric style. The vast majority of the columns in the cistern are cylindrical, except for a few of them in angular or grooved form. Since the 8 columns located in front of the northeastern wall towards the middle of the cistern were exposed to the risk of breaking during construction made in 1955-1960, each of them was enclosed in a thick concrete layer and thus they lost their former features. The ceiling space of the cistern was transferred to the columns by means of arches. The walls of the cistern, which are made of brick, are 4.80 meters thick and plastered with a thick layer of Horasan mortar and made waterproof. Even the floor is made of bricks.

The Sunken Basilica itself is surrounded by a wall and connected to an aqueduct that distributed the water. Over the centuries, it has been repaired many times. In May 1997, the cistern was re-opened to tourists after it had been cleaned out and repaired.

Medusa Heads

Basilica cistern in Istanbul

Apart from the couple of edged and grooved columns of the cistern, most of them are shaped like a cylinder. Two Medusa heads, which are used as supports under the two columns at the northwest edge of the cistern, are an excellent example of art from the Roman period. Medusa, is famously known for turning people to stone to stone with her stare, and even if nothing will happen to you if you look at the Medusa heads here, you are bound to be mesmerized by the workmanship, as the power still emanates from these giant, snake-covered heads in this underground reservoir in Istanbul.

In Greek mythology, Medusa was one of the Gorgon monsters, and she is usually represented with wings and a head full of venomous snakes instead of hair. Legend says that Medusa, a sea nymph, was the most beautiful of the three Gorgon sisters. She was courted by Poseidon, and made love to him in a temple of Athena. Furious, Athena transformed Medusa into a monstrous beast with snakes instead of hair, whose frightening face could turn onlookers to stone.

Since she was the only mortal among the three Gorgons, her killer Perseus was able to finish her off by severing her head, while she slept. She was so powerful that even her severed head could turn you into stone if you looked directly at it. Some versions of the story say that her severed head became part of the shield carried by Athena after Perseus gave it to the goddess. Having coupled with Poseidon previously, two beings sprang from her body when she was beheaded. One, Pegasus, was a winged horse later tamed by Bellerophon to help him kill the Chimera. The other, Chrysaor of the Golden Sword, remains relatively unknown today.Medusa heads in Basilica cistern Istanbul

Another story states that Medusa was a girl with beautiful black eyes, long hair, and a stunning body. She loved Perseus, the son of Zeus. Athena was also in love with Perseus and this made Medusa jealous. Therefore, Athena converted Medusa’s hair into snakes and whoever looked at her was paralyzed. Perseus later used her severed head as a weapon and defeated many enemies with her power. Therefore, the head of Medusa was engraved on the handles of the swords in Byzantium, and applied onto supports of the communes in reverse (so that the onlookers wouldn’t be affected by her stare).

What is fascinating is that the source of the Medusa heads or why they were installed is a mystery. There is a story that goes like this — since the snake-head Medusa could “gorgonize” (paralyze) anyone she looked at, Gorgon paintings and sculptures were being used for protecting big structures and special venues at that time. That is why they chose to have Medusa protect the cistern.

One of the Medusa heads is sideways at the base of the column, while the other is completely upside down. There are some interesting theories regarding the positions. The heads may have been removed from an ancient building called the Forum of Constantine, where similar ones have been found. Theories state that Byzantine builders didn’t value Roman relics so they weren’t bothered about the positions of the Medusa heads, while some historians say that early Christian practice involved putting pagan statues upside-down to make a bold statement about their faith.

The heads are perhaps the most striking sight in the cistern, whose dark passages underwent a thorough cleaning in 1985, when the city removed dirty water and tons of mud from it. The massive space, which is almost the size of two footballs, once held around 100,000 tons of water. Till date, the place is dark, damp, and a bit spooky, even though wooden platforms now help visitors walk inside. The Medusa heads are indeed a sight to behold!

Interesting Facts About Basilica cistern

Basilica cistern in Istanbul

  • Do you know about the weeping column in the Basilica Cistern? There are tear-like shapes engraved on it (others include a Hen’s Eye and slanted braches), and it “cries” endlessly? More than 7000 slaves worked in the construction of the palace and hundreds died. This column is a tribute to them, and it is their cries you hear till now! You can make a wish by throwing money in the water in front of this column.
  • The weeping column resembles the columns of the Triumphal Arch of Theodosius I from the 4th century (AD 379–395), erected in the “Forum Tauri” Square.
  • Built in the sixth century by Byzantine emperor Justinian as a place to store fresh water for his palace and nearby buildings, the reservoir was rediscovered a thousand years later when a scholar named Petrus Gyllius visited what was then Constantinople. He had heard bizarre stores of locals drawing up water and fish from their basements! In 1545 he found the secret — a gigantic subterranean cistern, beautifully carved and replete with the Medusas pictured above.
  • The Basilica Cistern’s water came from the Eğrikapı Water Distribution Center in the Belgrade Forest via the 971-metre-long Valens Aqueduct, and the 115-metre-long Mağlova Aqueduct, which was built by the Emperor Justinian.
  • The remarkable structure contained grotesque stuff during the Ottoman Empire (after the Ottomans conquered Istanbul in 1453) – it contained junk and corpses! Sounds macabre, right?
  • There have been numerous restorations of the structure since its foundation. It was repaired twice during the Ottoman State in the 18th century during the reign of Ahmed III in 1723 by the architect Muhammad Agha of Kayseri. The second major repair was completed during the 19th century during the reign of Sultan Abdulhamid II. Cracks to masonry and damaged columns were repaired in 1968, with additional restoration in 1985 by the Istanbul Metropolitan Museum. There was some more cleaning done in 1994 too.

Basilica Cistern in Movies

Basilica cistern in Istanbul

The second installment of the James Bond film series — From Russia With Love, in 1963 is probably one of the most famous movies set in Istanbul. The Istanbul scenes begin with the handsome Sean Connery arriving at the city’s Atatürk airport. The film’s most memorable scene takes place in the mysterious Basilica Cistern, which, in the movie, is located right under the Russian Consulate and is the perfect place for Bond to bring down an evil empire. It is referred to as being constructed by the Emperor Constantine with no reference to Justinian!
Inferno (Book & Movie)

The cistern with its glorious Medusa heads is mentioned in the 2013 book by Dan Brown, and featured in its 2016 film adaptation, directed by Ron Howard. Robert Langdon, played by Tom Hanks in the film, makes an important discovery in the Hagia Sophia museum that eventually leads to an intense fight in the Basilica Cistern situated just southwest of the museum. But the scenes at the Basilica Cistern were shot in a film studio in Budapest, so the structure isn’t inadvertently damaged.
Brotherhood of Tears

The cistern is featured in the Jean-Baptiste Andrea thriller in 2013, where the lead, played by Jérémie Renier delivers a suitcase to a client, essayed by Ali Pinar.

How to visit Basilica cistern: opening hours and ticket fair

Nowadays, Basilica cistern is a museum, so you can visit it at working hours.

The cistern opens at 09:00 and you can visit museum untill 17:30.

You can buy tickets online or at the kiosk located near the entrance of museum. Ticket fair is 30 turkish lyre.

The best time to visit Basilica is early morning, if you stay in Istanbul right in the middle of the tourist season. But in winter you can easily visit cistern without waiting in the queue.

 

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