There is no doubt that the city of Istanbul is steeped in thousands of years of history – history that can still be touched today. Sitting beneath modern city streets that are teeming with pedestrian, automobile and tram traffic, a walk through the underground space of the Basilica Cistern is an opportunity to physically experience a world that existed 1500 years ago.
Twice the size of an American football field, the Basilica Cistern was built in the 6th century AD by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian. An orderly forest of 336 marble columns that are 30 ft high, support an extensive barrel vaulted ceiling. The cistern was built to provide water to the palace and the surrounding buildings, with the source of the water coming from the nearby Belgrade Forest through a system of aqueducts.
During Ottoman rule, the cistern fell into disuse, and eventually, its existence was forgotten. Fortunately for us, it was rediscovered in the 16th century by Dutch historian P. Gyllius. After locals told him how they were able to pull up buckets of water, and even fish, through holes in the floors of their houses, he went in search of this mysterious source, and found it. After publishing his travelogue, the cistern became an early draw for tourists to the city, and now, continues to be a very popular tourist attraction.
Even though the cistern can hold as much as 27 million gallons of water, the water depth today is normally only a few feet. The space is atmospherically lit so that you can see the high vaulted ceiling and also promotes a beautiful reflection of the many symmetric rows of columns. Unlike the early days when visitors had to use a rowboat to access the site, a series of wooden boardwalks makes it easy to walk around and explore the whole space.
The Basilica cistern is across the street from the Hagia Sofia and is part of the UNESCO designated Historic Areas of Istanbul.
Thanks for visiting.