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  • Writer's pictureHarry Prance, MA

A Brief History of Basilica Cistern in Istanbul

What is Basilica Cistern?

Basilica Cistern is the largest underground cistern of Byzantine Constantinople that today is known by its Turkish name Yerebatan Sarayı (‘Sunken Palace’).

Basilica Cistern

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Basilica Cistern History

The small Greek town of Byzantium had much to recommend it as the site of Constantine’s new imperial capital, Constantinople. The Roman world had been torn apart by the recent civil wars and symbolically the Hellespont was the bridge of the eastern and western halves of the formerly divided empire. More practically, in the event of an attack the city was a natural fortress, protected by the sea on three sides: the Sea of Marmara to the south, the Golden Horn to the north and the Bosphorus to the east. There was, however, one small problem: the city is almost entirely unblessed with a natural supply of fresh water. Already in the 2nd century, Emperor Hadrian had built an aqueduct to supply the much smaller city of Byzantium. By the reign of Justinian, the imperial capital had overtaken Rome as the largest city in the world and had a population of likely half a million, all of whom needed reliable access to drinking water.

If the problem in Constantinople had only been that of bringing fresh water to the dry and dusty capital, it would have been solved simply enough by the old Roman imperial habit of building aqueducts. However, in summer, the springs that supplied the city throughout the rest of the year could not be relied upon, and so the citizens of the capital would suffer periodic droughts. What the parched and sweltering city needed was a means of storing the surplus water from the wettest parts of the year as an emergency supply for the driest, and so the Emperor Justinian ordered the construction of the Basilica Cistern, a huge underground reservoir for the city’s drinking water. It lay beneath the Stoa Basilica, one of the two great public squares on Istanbul’s First Hill, hence its name.

The cistern is jaw-droppingly large. You’ll descend 52 steps and see spread out before you a forest of 336 columns, each nine metres high. The cistern has a capacity of around 80,000 cubic meters. Impressive as the numbers are, it’s worth remembering that behind each of those 80,000 cubic metres was a slave with a spade, labouring in this vast subterranean site.

The cistern is not a purely practical metropolitan water works; in all its grandeur it’s in many ways an underground counterpart to Justinian’s other great building, the Hagia Sophia. Many of the columns are marble monoliths and are equipped with fine Corinthian capitals. Much of the building material seems to have been repurposed parts from older buildings in the capital, a process known as spoliation and common in Byzantine architecture. Most famous are the two extraordinary gorgon head column bases and the peacock-eyed column.

While the cistern is drained today for the ease of visitors, it was in use through much of the Ottoman period, and with the advent of popular tourism quickly became one of the star attractions of the city; visitors would wend their way through the columns on specially hired boats. The cistern has even played a starring role in the James Bond franchise, when it was used as a location in From Russia with Love, and was supposedly situated beneath the Soviet Embassy!

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