Across the street from Hagia Sophia and around the corner from the Milion Stone, is the entrance to this unusual attraction. It goes by the names: Basilica Cistern, the Sunken Palace or in Turkish, Yerebatan Sarayı.
The breathtaking underground cistern, was used as an underground reservoir and supplied fresh water for the Byzantine Emperor during the reign of Emperor Justinian in the 6th century. Its said to have been built in 532 and believed that there may have been an earlier, smaller one before it.
Originally the cistern was a total area of 105,00 sq feet but today only 2/3 of it is visible, since the rest was bricked up in the 19th century. 25 million gallons of water was held here, brought to the city via the Valens Aqueduct, North of Istanbul from the Belgrade forest and mountains.
A quick 15 minute, self-guided tour below the ground with dim lighting and water dripping, reveals early architectural examples that have survived to today. A walkway exists with shallow water and fish below your feet around the impressive 336 columns holding the ceiling, arranged in 12 rows of 28 columns each and 26 feet hight. A few different styles and examples can be seen by the capitals including Iconic, Corinthian and Doric. It’s believed that the columns were recycled from earlier Roman ruins in and around the city. Imagine that the water used to be filled at least half way or to the ceiling as you walk through.
MARK TWAIN ON THE BASILICA CISTERN
In Mark Twain’s ‘The Innocents Abroad’ published in 1869, he mentions the cistern when visiting Constantinople.
We visited the Thousand and One Columns. I do not know what it was originally intended for, but they said it was built for a reservoir. It is situated in the centre of Constantinople. You go down a flight of stone steps in the middle of a barren place, and there you are. You are forty feet under ground, and in the midst of a perfect wilderness of tall, slender, granite columns, of Byzantine architecture. Stand where you would, or change your position as often as you pleased, you were always a centre from which radiated a dozen long archways and colonnades that lost themselves in distance and the sombre twilight of the place.
For a century after the Ottoman Conquest the cistern was forgotten about and was only accidentally rediscovered in 1545. Peter Gyllius, a scholar, was determined to find out how people were accessing fresh water and even fish, from holes in their basement. After years of cleaning and restoration, the cistern was opened to the public in 1987.
One carved column inside goes by many names – Crying Column, Peacock-Eye Column or Weeping Column. The column is engraved with thousands of peacock eyes which at times appears to be weeping as water drips down from the ceiling. It’s believed this column was a tribute to the slaves who were involved in the construction.
The two heads of Medusa are two column bases, in the north western corner of the cistern, and examples from the Roman period. It’s not known where the two Medusa heads came from or why one is upside down and the other is tilted on it’s side. Several theories and rumors exist on their behalf. My favorite interpretation, was that these heads were positioned this way to cancel out Medusa’s power.
This attraction is not free, and costs a small fee.
Also to note, this is the site from the James Bond movie, From Russia with Love.