There are hundreds of ancient cisterns hidden underneath the streets and houses of Istanbul. Of the two that are open to the public, the Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Sarnıcı) is the largest and Istanbul’s most unusual tourist attraction.
Contrary to James Bond, who had to row his way through Istanbul underground cistern in From Russia with Love, you can take a stroll in the forest of hundreds of marble columns and enjoy the subterranean cool on a hot summer day.
The entrance to the Basilica Cistern of Istanbul is across the street from the Hagia Sophia. This immense underground water container was built during the reign of Emperor Justinian I in 532 to meet the water needs of the Great Palace. This marvelous piece of engineering only confirms yet again that those were the heydays of the Byzantine Empire.
The Basilica Cistern, which borrowed its name from the Ilius Basilica, is 143 meters long and 65 meters wide. The roof is supported by 336 marble columns, mostly in Ionic or Corinthian styles, each measuring 9 meters in length. Spaced at four-meter intervals, they are arranged in 12 rows of 28 columns each.
The cistern could hold 80.000 cubic meters of water, coming from the Eğrikapı Water Distribution Centre in the Belgrade Forest, 19 kilometers from the city. The water was transported to the city center via the 971-meter-long Valens Aqueduct (Bozdoğan Sukemeri) and the 11.545-meter-long Mağlova Aqueduct (Mağlova Sukemeri), which was built by Emperor Justinian I.
The cistern was forgotten for centuries and only accidentally rediscovered by the Frenchman Peter Gyllius in 1545. While researching Byzantine antiquities in the city, he noticed that people in the neighborhood not only got a hold of water by simply lowering buckets through holes in their basements, they miraculously sometimes even caught fish this way.
Visiting the Basilica Cistern
After cleaning and restoring the Basilica Cistern, the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality opened it to the public in 1987. After descending into the underground water facility via a flight of stairs, visitors can take a stroll on the concrete walkways, enjoying the subdued lighting and the cool temperatures.
Make sure you walk all the way to the far left-hand corner of the cistern, to see the two Medusa heads. Both heads are casually used as column bases; one positioned upside down, the other tilted to the side. Both their positioning as their origin remain a mystery up till now, although rumor has it that they were recycled form an antique building of the late Roman period.
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. She was beheaded while sleeping by the hero Perseus, who thereafter used her head as a weapon until giving it to the goddess Athena to place on her shield.
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.
In classical antiquity and today, the image of the head of Medusa finds expression in the evil-averting device.