One of the most amazing sights or structures in Istanbul today lies beneath our feet. In the subterranean depths below the ‘first hill of Constantinople’, where once stood a grand Byzantine public square, you will find the most splendid of all Byzantine cisterns. Subterranean structures during Byzantine times were used to store and provide water to the city and the Basilica Cistern was no different to other reservoirs except that it was built on an imposing scale. (During Ottoman times the Basilica Cistern was known as the ‘Sunken Palace’ or Yerebatan Sarayi.)
It is believed that the original cistern was built during the 4th century. However it had to be rebuilt by Emperor Justinian in the sixth century, after the Nika riots of 532 destroyed it. Under Justinian’s supervision its underground chamber was enlarged to stand approximately 65 metres wide and 143 metres long. It is supported by 336 columns, neatly arranged in twelve rows. Its awe-inspiring cathedral-shaped roof and columns gives it the feel and look of a magnificent Christian Basilica.
There are two columns with Medusa’s head that are of interest in the cistern. However, there is no concrete evidence to suggest why they were used. It is feasible that they were acquired to protect the great structure against evil spirits? It could also be that they were just simply the right sized foundation blocks needed for the columns that would eventually rest upon Medusa’s head. Many building materials, columns and decorative pieces were often recycled from old Roman buildings in a process called Spolia.
In an amazing feat of ingenuity, water was pumped and delivered through almost twenty kilometres of aqueducts, eventually reaching the cistern to supply water to the Great Palace of Constantinople and other buildings in the vicinity. Royal residence and emperors apparently enjoyed uninterrupted water from the cistern for seven hundred years, until the crusaders sieged the city in 1204. When the Byzantine emperors returned to the city from exile in 1261, the Great Palace that once stood as their residence (and later an administrative and ceremonial centre) was found in (further) disrepair. The fate of the Basilica cistern was linked to that of the Great Palace and when the emperors abandoned the Great Palace in flavor of the Palace of Blachernae (on the other side of Constantinople), the Basilica Cistern was closed and subsequently forgotten in the centuries that followed.
It was in 1545, after the Ottoman conquest, that a scholar by the name of Petrus Gyllius, who was researching Byzantine antiquities, discovered the long forgotten cistern. How he rediscovered it was through a chance conversation with locals. They told him a story how they were able to obtain water by lowering buckets through their basement floors. Many others were apparently able to catch fish too. Curious about this amazing ability to obtain water, he toured the surrounding neighbourhoods and found the cistern entrance through a basement.
With its discovery, the Topkapi Palace garden would be the beneficiary of the Basilica Cistern’s water supply. However, stories of it misuse, as a dumping ground, would later haunt authorities centuries later and startled them into action to clean up and repair of the marvelous cistern once and for all. Today, the Basilica Cistern is open to the public and has been since 1987.
Photo Credits: The header image of the cathedral-like cistern and the base of the Medusa column are both used under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 license.