Basilica Cistern Overview

Basilica Cistern is one of the largest and most popular cisterns located in Istanbul. Among the hundreds of cisterns, Basilica Cistern is the largest one open to the public. It lies in the prominent peninsula that is also home to Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. Built by the infamous Byzantine Emperor Justinian I in the year 542, the structure was used to meet the water needs of the palaces.

The Basilica Cistern is a famous historical site that brings millions of tourists every year. It is approximately 140 meters in length and 70 meters in breadth, spanning across an area of 9,800 square meters. The grand cistern consists of 336 columns, 9 meters long and placed 4.8 meters away. Explore this remarkable site as part of your Turkey travel packages, where the historical significance and architectural marvel of the Basilica Cistern seamlessly blend into your enriching journey through Turkey.

Each of the columns is different from one another. The most noteworthy part of the Basilica Cistern is the two Medusa heads. The two heads bespoke the marvellous Roman architecture and are believed to be taken from a famous antique building. Located on the north-western side of the cistern, the two heads form the base of two pillars.

It could hold 80,000 cubic meters of water that was filtered and sent to the Great Palace of Constantinople and other important buildings on the First Hill. The Basilica Cistern was opened to tourists in 1987 after the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality made extensive repairs. Also known as the Subterranean Palace, the grand structure of marble pillars makes for a great tourist experience.

How To Reach


The easiest way to reach Basilica Cistern from Istanbul Airport is via a taxi. You will be able to reach the Basilica Cistern within 30-35 minutes if you opt for a taxi. While you can avail a taxi from outside the airport, online apps also operate there.

Tram can be an affordable option but it might take over 50 minutes to reach Basilica Cistern. The T1 tram line can take you to the historical cistern.

Best Time To Visit

The best time to visit Basilica Cistern, Istanbul, is during the months of March to May and then from September to November. Istanbul has a pleasant temperature in the autumn and spring season. During these months, you will be able to tour Basilica Cistern with ease.

The visiting hours of Basilica Cistern can vary with seasons. It is open for visitors after 9 am all year round. The closing time is 6:30 pm for the summer months of April to October and 5:30 pm from November to March. On special days like New Years or religious holidays, the historic site opens at 1 pm.

Other Essential Information

The Basilica Cistern is located on Alemdar, Yerebatan Cd. 1/3, 34110 Fatih, Istanbul. It lies on the famous Sarayburnu peninsula of Istanbul, 150 meters southwest of Hagia Sophia.
Distance from Istanbul Airport:
This great architectural marvel is approximately 40 km away from Istanbul Airport (IST). It can take 30-40 minutes to reach it by tram or taxi.

History of Basilica Cistern

This subterranean cistern has a rich historical significance. The landmark gets its name because of its location. It stood under an enormous public square, the Stoa Basilica, also known as the First Hill of Constantinople. Before the construction of Basilica Cistern, a public space stood in its place during the 3rd and 4th centuries.

It was the epicentre of trade, commerce, and art during the Roman Age. In the year 476, the Basilica was destroyed in a fire and then reconstructed by a Byzantine General called Flavius Illus. If ancient texts are to be believed, the Basilica had enormous gardens and colonnades surrounding it on all sides.

The structure that we witness today was built by Emperor Constantine. People tend to remember it being made by Emperor Justinian I. In reality, the Emperor Justinian only enlarged the historical place after it was destroyed in the Nika riots in 52. It took more than 7,000 slaves to build this cistern, out of which many lost their lives during the construction.

The newly built Basilica Cistern was used to store and provide water to the Great Palace and other buildings located on the First Hill. It fell into disguise during the Ottoman period, but later a scholar named Petrus Gyllius found it when he was on the search of Byzantine antiquities.

The locals used the Basilica for getting water or to catch fish but over time, it became a dumping ground for them. The underground palace had been neglected for too long. In 1985, the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality cleaned and renovated the structure, and then it was opened for public in 1987.

With raised wooden platforms, vaulted ceiling, and aesthetic beauty, the Basilica Cistern soon became one of the top tourist spots in Istanbul. Those seeking the history and culture of the Roman Age often find their way to Basilica Cistern. 

Structure of Basilica Cistern

The Basilica Cistern is a grand structure located under the ground. A flight of steep stairs can take you into the aesthetically pleasing concrete hallways. The cistern is a rectangular chamber, measuring 140 meters by 70 meters. It is surrounded by walls that are 4.8 meters thick. It covers an area of 9,800 square meters and offers spectacular views.  

The roof the cross vault stands tall on the marble columns arranged in a gridiron layout. There are 12 rows of 28 columns, consisting of 336 columns. Placed 4.8 meters away from each other, the pillars are an exemplary work of art. While most of the columns are cylindrical in shape, some are fluted or sided columns.

They are made using one or two blocks. The capitals of the pillars are Ionic or Corinthian style, but a few have Doric style. One of the pillars has the engraving of a Hen’s eye with tears and slanted branches. It pays homage to the slaves that lost their lives during the construction of the Basilica Cistern.

Two pillars in the northwestern part of the cistern rest on Medusa heads. Archeologists believe they were brought to be used as support for the pillars. According to Greek mythology, Medusa was one of the three Gorgons. She was a sea nymph and the most beautiful of the three.

She made love to Poseidon in the temple of Athena and he turned her into a demon with snakes in place of hair and could turn anyone into stone. The heads are placed in sideways and reverse. Some believe the Medusa heads were used in the world of antiquity to ward off evil, while some historians believe it was the Emperor's way of declaring that the Pagan gods were dead to him.

Construction and Measurements of Basilica Cistern

The original Basilica was constructed during the Early Roman Age in the 3rd and 4th centuries. It was a large public square that became the epicentre of trade and artistic expression. The structure faced Hagia Sophia and contained gardens and colonnades.

In the year 532, the Nika Riots destroyed the city and the old Basilica along with it. The Basilica Cistern that you see today was built by the orders of Emperor Constantine and then Emperor Justinian I during the 6th century. He was a prolific builder and it was a part of his plan to revive his empire.

It was his plan to recover and restore old public buildings and the Basilica Cistern was one of such buildings. Even after 1500 years, his construction remains bespoke the history and legacy of the Byzantine Empire. Emperor Justinian I constructed the cistern to provide water to the Great Palace of Constantinople and the other buildings of the city.

Over 7,000 slaves were employed to build this grand structure. Many of these slaves lost their lives during the construction of the Basilica Cistern. The Basilica cistern measures 140 meters in length and 70 meters in breadth. It covers a rectangular area of around 9,800 square meters.

The roof of the cistern is held with 336 marble columns, placed 4 meters away from each other. Each pillar is 9 meters tall and they form a grid of 2 rows and 28 columns. The columns were constructed with one or two blocks and portrayed Ionic, Dorian, and Corinthian styles of architecture.

One of the columns has an engraving of the Hen’s eye, with branches and tears as a tribute to the slaves who died during the construction. Two columns have Medusa heads to support them from the end. According to historians, many of these pillars and the two Medusa heads were taken from ancient Roman buildings and monuments.   

The entire structure was surrounded by fire brick walls that had a thickness of 4.8 meters. It had a coating of waterproof mortar to protect them. There are a total of 52 steps that descend you into the aesthetic cistern. The underground labyrinth-like structure could hold 80,000 cubic meters of water.

Basilica Cistern received water from the Egrikapi Water Distribution Center in the Belgrade Forest which was 12 miles north of the city. The water traveled through 971 meters long Valen Aqueduct and 115 meters long Maglova Aqueduct which were also built by Emperor Justinian.     

Basilica Cistern got repairs for the first time in the 18th century and then again in the 19th century. In 1968, damaged columns and cracked masonry was repaired by the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality. They cleared the mud and built platforms to open the cistern to the public in the year 1987.

It underwent additional cleaning in the year 1994. The authority now operates it as a popular tourist spot and looks after the periodic repair and maintenance.  

Underground Cathedral of Basilica Cistern

The locals fondly regard Basilica Cistern as the ‘Yerebatan Sarayi’ or ‘Sunken Palace.’ This underground cistern is one of the 80 cisterns found in Istanbul. It is not only the largest but also the best-excavated cistern.    
It is a marvelous example of the Byzantine architectural marvel.

Spanning over an area of 9,800 square meters, the Basilica Cistern is all about grandeur. To stop the roof from vaulting in, there are 336 marble columns that offer support. The 9 meters tall columns placed 4.8 meters apart from each other, form a labyrinth grid.

The structure of the Basilica Cistern offers surreal views that can leave anyone mesmerized. It resembles the grandeur and charm of a cathedral that has sunken into water. The cistern once stored 80,000 cubic meters of water that came from the Black Sea through aqueducts.

Using similar aqueducts the filtered water was sent to the Palace and other buildings of importance. The cistern was used for only 500 years and then abandoned after the Palace was shifted. It was rediscovered during the 16th century, but by then the cistern had become a space for locals to get water or fish.

During the restoration of the Basilica Cistern, the mud from the floors was removed and platforms were built to walk upon. Now the cistern has 52 comfortable and sturdy steps that take you to the cool and dimly lit structure. The comfortable and safe walkways can take you to different parts of the cistern.

You can get a first-hand experience of the aesthetic architectural brilliance of the Byzantine Empire. By taking a walk through the columns, you can come across the weeping column with the engraving of Hen’s eye and tears. There are two pillars resting on gigantic Medusa heads that are taken from the ancient Roman buildings.

While the water was taken out from most of the cistern during restoration, you can still admire the carps swimming lazily in a few feet of water left in there. The exceptional cistern takes inspiration from Roman architecture. You can witness glorious columns with hints of Ionic, Dorian, and Corinthian styles.

Taking a stroll through the dark cistern can instantly take you back in time and lets you experience the grandeur famous during the reign of the Byzantines and Ottomans. Amid the hustle and bustle of the populous town of Istanbul, the serene and exotic Basilica Cistern is a rare find.

It can take you away from the usual humdrum of life and enjoy peace in the most natural surroundings. You will be able to experience ‘athan,’ a melodious call to prayer, the overwhelming history, and hushed whispers in different languages, making it a pilgrimage for you. Don’t forget to attend the various musicals, poetry events, and Ney concerts during the pious month of Ramadan.

Tips on visiting Basilica Cistern

Here are a few tips that can ensure you get the most out of your visit:

- The cistern opens at 9 am and closes at 5:30 pm in winters and 6:30 pm in summers.

For buying the entry ticket, carry sufficient cash as they do not accept debit or credit cards.

The museum pass that allows you entry in other museums will not be accepted in Basilica Cistern.

The underground cistern is dark and damp, which can lead to a drop in temperature. Always carry a light cardigan to keep yourself warm. But also keep in mind that the tour of the Basilica Cistern can involve a lot of walking so wear something comfortable. Istanbul is a religious place, and it is best to opt for clothes that cover your knees and arms.  

The place can get slippery and you must tread slowly and watch your steps. You must wear sturdy and comfortable shoes for the tour of Basilica Cistern. 

You can use your mobile phone to click pictures of the magnificent views of the Basilica Cistern. Although using a tripod is prohibited in the cistern so don’t carry it around.
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Basilica Cistern FAQs

What was the Basilica Cistern used for?

In the Early Roman Age, the Basilica Cistern was first used as the centre for law, commerce, and art. But after the reconstruction done by the Emperor Justinian, the architectural marvel began to be used for storing and providing water. It could store 80,000 cubic meters of water which was delivered by the 20km long aqueducts from a reservoir located close to the Black Sea. The cistern delivered filtered water to the Great Palace of Constantinople and many other buildings located on the First Hill. Even after the Ottoman Conquest, the Basilica Cistern continued to provide water to the locals of the city.

What attractions are near Basilica Cistern?

The Basilica Cistern is surrounded by many significant monuments and historical places, they are:

1. Hagia Sophia
Located 150 miles southwest of the cistern, Hagia Sophia was the principal church of the Byzantine Empire, which was later converted into a mosque during the Ottoman Empire. The Government of Turkey has now converted it into a museum that attracts thousands of tourists.

2. Blue Mosque
The ethereal architecture and intricate interiors of the Blue Mosque is a sight to behold. It gets its name from the stunning blue Iznik tiles used in the mosque. A pinnacle of the Ottoman Empire, the mosque is open for tourists during a limited time.

3. Sultanahmet Square
Sultanahmet Square resides in the heart of the city, with many tourist spots around it. The square is brimming with locals and tourists alike, enjoying the pleasant weather and vibrant stuff sold by vendors. Don’t miss out on the German Fountain located in the centre of the square.

How old is the Basilica Cistern?

The structure is more than 1500 years old and is one of the oldest and largest cisterns in Turkey. According to historians, the Basilica Cistern was built in the year 532 by Emperors Justinian after the Nika Riots caused huge destruction to the original structure that stood there.

Basilica Cistern Reviews

K Lesuisse
Reviewed: 20 Oct 2022
A must see if traveling to Istanbul.
K Lesuisse
K Lesuisse

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