Did you feel your heart race when James Bond went rowing in a canal bordered by marble columns in the movie From Russia with Love? Did you feel the adrenaline pumping as you turned the pages of Dan Brown’s Inferno as Robert Langdon went on a race against time to potentially save the human race? How about the Yerebatan Cistern from Assassin’s Creed: Revelations? These fantasy moments can easily be relived. All you need to do is book a trip to Istanbul, Turkey and kill some time at the Basilica Cistern, the very location where all of the above scenes took shape.
Steeped in the colours of Byzantine history, the Basilica Cistern is definitely one of those places that takes you back in time to a bygone era and perhaps transports you into your favourite video game. One of the oldest water reservoirs in the city, this cistern is one among hundreds in Istanbul but its grandeur is unparalleled. Revamped today with lights, classical music and the melancholy dripping of water from the ceiling, the Yerebatan Sarnic or The Sunken Palace as it is popularly known has an unconventional romantic appeal too.
Dating back to the 6th century AD, the Basilica cistern was built under Byzantine Emperor Justinian when Istanbul was still called Constantinople. Cisterns were water reservoirs in those days and provided the foundation for the city’s water supply system. The Basilica Cistern is the largest of the hundreds of underground cisterns that quenched the thirst of bygone Turks. Deriving its name from the Stoa Basilica which lay above it, this expansive artificial freshwater environment was discovered by scholars in the middle ages when locals lowered buckets into their basements to collect water and even to fish. The Stoa Basilica was constructed during the Early Roman period and served as an important commercial, legal and artistic hub. It was believed to have been flanked by gardens and enveloped by colonnades as it lay opposite the iconic Hagia Sophia.
Ancient historians credit the Basilica cistern structure to Emperor Constantine which was enlarged and redesigned by Emperor Justinian following the city’s ruin in the Nika Riots of 532 AD. 7000 slaves were employed in the building of this masterpiece which was a filtration system for the Great Palace of Constantinople. It continued to be the source of water for the Topkapi Palace post the Ottoman conquest of 1453 and into the contemporary era.
The Basilica’s water can be sourced to the Egikrapi Water Distribution Center in Belgrade and travelled 971 metres via the Valens Aqueduct.
When it comes to the number game, the Basilica Cistern can boast a list of daunting and astounding specifications. Spanning an area of a mammoth 9,800 square metres, it is capable of holding 80,000 cubic metres of water. The vast ceiling rests on concrete rows of 336 marble columns, each of them being 9 metres high and 4.9 metres apart. These are some of the finest specimens of Ionic, Corinthian and Doric styles of architecture.
Look out for the column bearing engravings of a Hen’s Eye, slanted branches and tears. Said to resemble the Triumphal Arch of Theodisius I, it is a tribute to the slaves who lost their lives in the building of the cistern. Exquisitely carved and engraved with marble and granite, the majestic columns seemed to belong to older buildings and are likely to be recycled from ruins.
The Basilica cistern is well fortified with a 4 metre waterproofing mortar coated thick firebrick wall. You can access it by descending a set of fifty two stairs at the entrance. On approaching the northwest corner of the cistern, look out for two columns carved with the face of Medusa, a chthonic character in Greek Mythology. One of the columns bears an inverted image of the demonic female while the other depicts a sideways stone carving. The lack of writing on the columns makes it difficult to ascertain the origin of the structures or their mysterious positioning. However, the columns are believed to have been recycled from an old Roman building. According to Greek mythology, a direct gaze into Medusa’s horrific face would turn a man to stone. The sculpture is said to be placed sideways to negate the power of her gaze. A more logical explanation stated the need for better sizing and fit to support the column.
The cross shaped vaults and rounded roof arches are remarkably used for support and aesthetic purposes. Despite its massive capacity, the cistern today is practically drained with just a few feet of water at the bottom.
The Basilica Cistern is one of the most remarkably preserved monuments in the vivid history of Byzantine Turkey. This is largely due to the many restoration attempts that have been undertaken since its construction. It was opened to the public in September, 1987.
The Basilica Cistern is open everyday between 9:00 am and 6:30 p.m. Visit this astonishing location for an hour or two for a fee of 10 TL for foreign tourists and 5 TL for Turks.
Whether you crave a little bit of history, fantasy and fiction or an avant-garde romantic getaway, the Basilica Cistern has it all. Kill a couple of hours walking on raised wooden platforms while goldfish swim in the cool waters beneath. Take in the classical music from the ceiling and look Medusa in the eye if you dare. Find comfort in the eerily soothing sounds of water slowly dripping from the ceiling and let the lights guide you around. It is an experience truly out of this world.