Basilica Cistern, Istanbul


A friend of ours had warned us NOT TO MISS the cistern, and she was absolutely right! This amazing ancient water tank is impressive not just because of its planning, engineering and implementation, but also because it has lasted some 1,500 years! Built around 500 AD, this was meant to store water for the use of the royal family in the nearby palace. Today it is a major tourist attraction and for good reason…


From the street level entrance located at walking distance from the Blue Mosque and Topkapi Palace, one descends several flights of steps into the actual cistern, which is now lit up dramatically with red and orange lighting so that you can see the elaborate brickwork on the ceilings of the cistern and gaze at one or more of 300+ stone columns that hold up the roof of the cistern (above which homes, parks, roads, etc. are constructed!


The cool, damp interiors are a welcome change from the heat at street level during the summer months, but I can imagine how dank and humid this must also be during the winter months. I just found the place incredibly dramatic and physically beautiful. A great place for an eyeball, i say. I don’t think I can say that about any of the water tanks in Manila at the moment…


At one corner of the cistern, there are two heads of medusa used as the base of some of the columns, and curiously, one of the heads is laid upside down. It is hypothesized that the builders of the cistern had raided other monuments at the time, and recycled some of the building materials… but why they chose to turn one head up on end is something we may never know… Do not miss this attraction if you visit Istanbul!


11 Responses

  1. Wow!

    It seems like there’s really so much to see in Turkey. A friend of mine said it takes many visits to see all the wonderful things this country has to offer.

  2. Oh wow! The place reminds me of that Lord of the Rings movie when the Fellowship gang was chased by the Balrog inside the mountain.

  3. Hi MM,

    Have been lurking for sometime but it’s always a pleasure reading your posts! Am glad you featured the Basilica Cistern as part of your Istanbul visit. It was one of the highlights of our tour of the city last March after the Topkapi and Aya Sofia. Such calmness and awe prevailed when we gingerly took the slippery steps down into the cistern, after hectic visits to the latter. Did you know that this place was discovered by accident, some hundred years back of course.

    Your photos did a good job on the Medusa head. I had a hard time finding an angle which would feature her fine side without ogling tourists vying for her attention.


  4. THIS was a cistern? Wow. They made something so functional beautiful as well. You can have function without sacrificing form…

  5. I chanced upon an impromptu performance by a visting group of Balkan folk singers here in December 2001 and the good acoustics plus the magical venue made it all very memorable. I was genuinely surprised that it snowed(and really heavily, too) in that part of the world. Being inside was a welcome respite from the bitter cold and the raging snowstorm outside. Did you get to visit a hamam?

  6. I’ve been living in Turkey for over a year and in that time, I’ve going through your website for the recipes to be closer to home. I was pleasantly surprised to see that you are/were here!

  7. I’ve seen this in a documentary on the Travel Channel or Discovery Channel. I can just imagine how beautiful it is. Lucky you!



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