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A Myth Hidden in Sultanahmet: Basilica Cistern

The Basilica Cistern, a frequented place of many local and foreign tourists, was built by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian 1 in the 6th century to supply the palace’s water needs. The cistern, which covers a large area of 9800 square meters, consists of 336 pieces, 9 meters high each.

Basilica Cistern is located in Istanbul Sultanahmet. Basilica Cistern, after the Ottoman conquest of Istanbul (1453) was used for a while and the sultan’s palace where sits (Topkapi) is provided here to water the garden. The Ottomans, who preferred the fountain water to stagnant water, did not use the cistern after building their own water facilities.

The Basilica Cistern was rediscovered by Gyllius (Dutch traveler) who came to Istanbul to search and study Byzantine between 1544-1550.

History of Basilica Cistern

The Basilica Cistern, built by Justinian in the 6th century, is called the Basilica Cistern because it is under the Stoa Basilica. Approximately 7,000 slaves were brought water from the water center of Eğrikapı, which is located in the forests of Belgrade, by means of the Bozdağan Arch built by Valens (Emperor) and the Mağlova Arch built by Justinianus.


Many of the columns in the Basilica Cistern are cylinder-shaped except for a few. Inside these pillars, it is more remarkable that it is embellished with carved branches, peacock eye and tear shapes in relief and engraving. The column is similar to the columns found at the victory site of Theodesius (379-395), which is called “Farum Tauri” in the Byzantine period and remains in the present Beyazıt square.

Many mythological rumors about Medusa make the Basilica Cistern even more mysterious. According to a rumor Medusa, it is one of three female monster in the underworld. Medusa is a snake-headed sister and has the power to turn those who look at her eyes to stone. In that time, it is believed that Medusan was there cause Gorgona Heads put to protect private places and great structures.

According to another remark, Medusa is a young girl who boasts long hair, beautiful body and black eyes. She loves Perseus, the son of Zeus. Athene (Goddness) loves Perseus too and she envies Medusa. Thats why Athena turned horrible snakes Medusa’s hair.


From now on, every person who looks at Medusa turns to the stone. Perseus cuts the head of Medusa, thinking that magic is done, and goes to war by taking his hand. Those who see the head of Medusa become stones and Perseus win wars.

Features of the Basilica Cistern

> The Basilica Cistern is 70 meters wide and 140 meters long. It is a huge building that surrounds a rectangular area.

> The columns of the cistern, which were laid by a stone ladder of 52 steps, were erected at intervals of 4.80 meters. These columns also bring a total of 12 rows, 28 in each case.

> The ceiling weight of the Basilica Cistern is transferred to the vaulted vaults and round arches and pillars.

> Most of the columns made of different marble types gathered from the older structures consist of one part and two parts on top.

> The headers of the pillars have different features. The brick floor of Basilica Cistern is plastered with a thick layer of Horasan mortar and made waterproof.

> The cistern, which has an area of 9800 square meters, has a water storage capacity of approximately 100.000 tons.

> The Basilica Cistern was restored for the first time by Mehmet Aga (Architect) in 1723. The repair of the 19th century (2nd Abdulhamit period) was very detailed and large. It was restored by Istanbul Municipality in 1985 and 50.000 tons of mud was extracted from it. The cistern was opened again on September 9, 1987, with the launch trip platform.