The Basilica Cistern, located in the historical peninsula of Istanbul, is a remarkable subterranean structure that has captivated visitors for centuries with its mysterious and ethereal beauty. Known as “Yerebatan Sarayı” or “Sunken Palace” in Turkish, this ancient cistern represents a unique chapter in the city’s long history, combining functionality, architectural ingenuity, and artistic beauty. In this comprehensive exploration, we delve deep into the mysterious world of the Basilica Cistern, uncovering its historical background, architectural features, cultural significance, and the enigmatic allure that makes it a must-visit destination in Istanbul.
Historical Background of the Basilica Cistern
1. Byzantine Ingenuity
- Constructed in the 6th century during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, the Basilica Cistern was built to meet the water needs of the Great Palace and surrounding buildings in Constantinople.
- It is the largest of several hundred ancient cisterns that lie beneath the city of Istanbul, a testament to the advanced engineering skills of the Byzantines.
2. Purpose and Function
- The cistern was designed to store and filter water, sourced from the Belgrade Forest, and transported via aqueducts. It played a crucial role in sustaining the city, especially during sieges.
Architectural Features of the Basilica Cistern
1. Size and Capacity
- The cistern is an underground chamber approximately 140 meters long and 70 meters wide, capable of holding up to 80,000 cubic meters of water.
2. The Forest of Columns
- The space is supported by 336 marble columns, each 9 meters high, arranged in 12 rows of 28 columns. The columns are a mix of Ionic and Corinthian styles with a few Doric ones, indicating that they were recycled from older structures.
3. Unique Column Bases
- Among the columns, two feature the visage of Medusa, with one head placed upside down and the other on its side. The origin and purpose of these Medusa heads remain a subject of mystery and speculation.
The Cistern’s Cultural and Historical Significance
1. From Byzantine to Ottoman Times
- After the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople, the cistern continued to provide water to the Topkapi Palace and was later rediscovered after falling into disuse.
2. Restoration and Preservation
- The Basilica Cistern has undergone several restorations, both in Ottoman times and more recently, to preserve its structure and to accommodate its role as a historical site.
The Basilica Cistern as a Tourist Attraction
1. Atmospheric Ambience
- The cistern’s dimly lit, vast underground space, coupled with the sound of dripping water and soft lighting, creates an ethereal atmosphere that leaves a lasting impression on visitors.
2. Cultural Events and Exhibitions
- The cistern has been used as a unique venue for cultural events, concerts, and art exhibitions, adding a contemporary dimension to its historical essence.
Exploring the Basilica Cistern
1. Visitor Experience
- A walk on the raised wooden platforms inside the cistern allows visitors to explore the forest of columns, admire the architectural details, and ponder the historical mysteries of the cistern.
2. Photography and Reflection
- The reflective waters, symmetry of the columns, and subdued lighting offer a fantastic opportunity for photography enthusiasts.
The Basilica Cistern, with its dark, serene waters and towering columns, stands as a remarkable feat of engineering and a mysterious relic of Istanbul’s past. It is a place where history, myth, and architectural beauty converge, offering visitors a glimpse into the Byzantine era’s ingenuity and artistry. Beyond its functional origins, the cistern has evolved into a symbol of the city’s rich heritage, capturing the imagination of all who walk its submerged corridors. Whether one is drawn to its historical significance, architectural splendor, or the simple allure of its tranquil, otherworldly atmosphere, the Basilica Cistern remains an unmissable experience in the heart of Istanbul.