Basilica Cistern

The incredible subterranean Basilica Cistern

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Hidden beneath the city of Istanbul (Constantinople), Turkey, are hundreds of ancient cisterns that stored and supplied water to its inhabitants in the ancient past. The largest of these is the Basilica Cistern. So spectacular is the cistern that one could easily mistake it for a sacred subterranean temple.

The Basilica Cistern is located just 150m southwest of the famous Haghia Sophia, and was built by the Byzantine emperor, Justinian I, in A.D. 532. This cistern is 138 m in length and 64.6 m in width, covering an area of almost 1,000 square metres. This cistern is capable of holding up to 80,000 cubic metres of water.

An incredible work effort went into its construction, with 336 marble columns supporting the structure, each measuring 9m in height, and arranged in 12 rows of 28 columns each divided by a distance of 4.9m. It is said that the majority of these columns were recycled from older buildings (a process known as ‘spoliation’), possibly brought to what was then Constantinople from the various parts of the Byzantine Empire, as well as those used for the construction of the Hagia Sophia. This recycling of columns may have been done to save cost, or to give the cistern a boost of prestige. Perhaps the most iconic example of spoliation is the re-use of the heads of Medusa as the bases of two columns located in the northwest corner of the cistern. According to tradition, the heads were oriented sideways and inverted to counter the power of Medusa’s deadly gaze, though it is more likely these orientations provided the proper sizes to support the columns.

One of the Medusa heads in the Basilica Cistern

One of the Medusa heads in the Basilica Cistern. Photo source .

It may be pointed out that the name of this cistern is derived from the fact that it stands under the site where a Roman basilica (a large, open, public building where business or legal transactions could be carried out) once stood. This basilica is believed to have been built sometime in the 3 rd or 4 th centuries B.C. After Constantinople was devastated by the Nika riots of A.D. 532, the Basilica Cistern was part of the Emperor Justinan’s rebuilding project. The basilica, however, unlike the cistern, no longer exists today.

Although the Basilica Cistern is a popular tourist destination today, it was not always so. In fact, sometime before the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453, the Basilica Cistern was closed, and seemed to have been forgotten by the city authorities. It was about a century later that the cistern was re-discovered. In 1545, the French scholar, Petrus Gyllius was in Constantinople researching Byzantine antiquities. He was told by local residents that they could obtain water by lowering buckets in their basement floors. Some even claimed that they could catch fish this way. Gyllius decided to explore the neighbourhood, and managed to access the cistern through the basement of one of the houses in that area. Nevertheless, the Ottoman authorities did not seem to take note of this discovery, as the cistern became a rubbish dump. It has, however, been restored thrice since then. In the late 1980s, the silted-in floor was dredged, and added lighting, elevated walkways, and a café were added for the convenience of visitors. Although the cistern holds only a small amount of water today, fish can still be found in it, so as to keep the water clear.

The spectacular Basilica Cistern

The spectacular Basilica Cistern. Photo source .

It is interesting to see how once practical structures, like the Basilica Cistern, are turned into tourist attractions centuries after falling out of use. I wonder whether any of the buildings that we perceive today as ordinary, everyday structures will one day be turned into tourist spots by people of the future. Perhaps office blocks and their cubicles, schools, or even the local grocery store – who knows?  

Featured image: Part of the Basilica Cistern . Photo source: Wikimedia.

By Ḏḥwty


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