The Basilica Cistern in Istanbul is far more than a simple receptacle for holding mass quantities of water. It is a vast sunken palace that was originally built by the Emperor Constantine and enlarged by the Emperor Justinian in 532 AD. Called Yerebatan Sarnici in Turkish, it originally provided the large amount of water needed to support the household in the Great Palace of Constantinople. Later, it continued to provide water for Topkapi Palace well into modern times.
The Underground Cistern in Istanbul got its name because it was built under the Stoa Basilica, a large public square in the Old Istanbul DIstrict. The history of Constantinople, later Istanbul, is full of sieges and conquests, and water from the Basilica Cistern was vital to the city during these long sieges. There are hundreds of cisterns like this under the city, just as there are in many other ancient cities. One of the most amazing is the one located under El Jadida in Morocco, and it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Another, with the dreamlike name of “Cistern of the Enchanted Moorish Girl,” is found in the Algarve Portugal town of Silves.
This sunken palace is also sometimes called an underground cathedral, with its forest of carved and engraved marble columns and high vaulted brick ceilings held up by the 336 columns. It holds nearly 3,000,000 cubic feet of water in a space covering more than 100,000 square feet in area. The water was supplied from Belgrade Woods, now a city park and located across the Bosphorus from the Dolmabahce Palace. Some of the Bosphorus river cruises embark from this park.
The Basilica Cistern in Istanbul is located close to the Hagia Sophia, and many visitors take tours of both during the same excursion. The Blue Mosque is also within easy walking distance. This area (Sultan Ahmet Square) is the heart of the Old Istanbul section of the city, so there are many other attractions here, including the Hippodrome, the Great Bazaar (one of the largest covered bazaars in the world), and one of the city’s finest museums (the Museum of Islamic Art). Some of the city’s best luxury hotels are also located in this area.
When you tour the Basilica Cistern you may have a feeling of déjà vu, since this sunken palace was featured in the James Bond film From Russia with Love. It is the scene in which James Bond rows his boat through the forest of Ionic and Corinthian columns. Tours of the Basilica Cistern in Istanbul today take advantage of atmospheric lighting and walkways installed during the 1990s. Your tours will be accompanied by classical music and historic narrative. The atmosphere is both eerie and romantic at the same time. And the Basilica Cistern provides a cool retreat if you are visiting the city during the hot summer weather. There is also a small dining spot with snacks and drinks. Schedule about an hour, and budget for a modest entrance fee.