Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Sarayı)

There are hundreds of ancient cisterns hidden underneath the streets and houses of Istanbul. Of the two that are open to the public, the Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Sarayı / Sarnıcı) is the largest and the most unusual tourist attraction of Istanbul. It offers an insight into the complicated system that once brought drinking water into Istanbul from Thrace. The name of this subterranean structure comes from a large public square on the First Hill of Constantinople, the Stoa Basilica, beneath which it was originally built in 532 AD, during the reign of Emperor Justinian I to meet the water needs of the Great Palace. It was then forgotten for centuries and only accidently rediscovered by the Frenchman Peter Gyllius in 1545. While researching Byzantine antiquities in the city, he noticed that people in the neighborhood were able to get water by simply lowering buckets through holes in their basements and sometimes they also miraculously even caught fish this way. Even after his discovery, the did not treat the underground palace with the respect it deserved and it became a dumping ground for all sorts of junk, as well as corpses.

The cistern has been restored at least three times. First repairs were carried out twice during the Ottoman Empire in the 18th century during the reign of Ahmet III in 1723 by the architect Muhammad Agha of Kayseri. The second major repair was completed during the 19th century during the reign of Sultan Abdulhamid II (1876–1909). Cracks to masonry and damaged columns were repaired in 1968, with additional restoration in 1985 by the Istanbul Metropolitan Museum. During the 1985 restoration, 50,000 tons of mud were removed from the cisterns, and wooden platforms were built to replace the boats once used to tour the cistern. The cistern was opened to the public in its current condition on 9 September 1987. In May 1994, the cistern underwent additional cleaning.

The cistern is 65 m wide and 143 m long, and its roof is supported by 336 columns arranged in 12 rows. It once held 80,000 cubic metres of water, pumped and delivered through nearly 20 km of aqueducts. The weight of the cistern lies on the columns by means of the cross-shaped vaults and round arches of its roof.

Located in the northwest corner of the cistern, the bases of two columns were built from blocks carved with the visage of Medusa. The origin of the two heads is unknown, though it is thought that the heads were brought to the cistern after being removed from a building of the late Roman period. There is no written evidence that suggests they were used as column pedestals previously. It is commonly believed that the blocks are put sideways and upside down in order to negate the power of the Gorgons' gaze. However, it is more likely that they were placed in their current positions only to be the proper size to support the column.

The Basilica Cistern is open daily from 9 to 6.30 in summer and from 9 to 5.30 in winter. The entrance costs 10 TL.

Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Sarayı) Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Sarayı)
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