Basilica Cistern in Ancient Constantinople

Introducing The Basilica Cistern In Istanbul

The Basilica Cistern is a major tourist attraction in Istanbul, Turkey. It is located adjacent to other popular attractions on the “European” side of Istanbul. Therefore, it is easily accessible from around the city. In fact, on a hot day it can provide some much needed shade.

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The cistern was built under the rule of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian in the 6th century A.C.E. Prior to construction, a great Basilica was situated at this location. Ancient texts describe the basilica as facing the Hagia Sophia and it featured lush gardens and a colonnade. Hence the name “Basilica Cistern”.

After completion it served as the fresh water supply for the “Great Palace of Constantinople”. However, it continued to serve as a valuable water source for many centuries. In fact, the succeeding Ottoman Empire made use of it well into the 19th century.

Special Features of the Basilica Cistern

There are many cisterns that were used in ancient Constantinople (Istanbul). Essentially, it is a giant underground storage chamber used to store fresh water. The water supply came from the Belgrade Forest which was then located 19 kilometers outside the city center. Additionally, it was transported using the famous Roman aqueducts. The cistern can store up to 100,000 tons of fresh water.

However, in modern times it only contains a few feet of water at the bottom. This creates great photo opportunities because the lights are well adjusted. As a result of the underground lighting, the Basilica Cistern red water is given it’s special tint and visual affect of the columns is amplified.

Basilica Cistern Istanbul

The combination of the red water, pillars and ambient lighting create a unique photographic experience inside the Basilica Cistern.

The main architectural features of the Basilica Cistern are the 136 pillars that support it. These pillars were brought to Constantinople from locations throughout the empire and are mainly composed of granite and marble.

Additionally, the carving styles mainly consist of Ionic and Corinthian designs. One of the cistern’s columns features carvings of tears which historians believe are a tribute to the hundreds of slaves who gave their lives during construction.

Basilica Cistern Fish

In addition to the red water, the Basilica Cistern fish are an added attraction for some visitors. The fish in this photo are the common carp.

Basilica Cistern Medusa Sculptures

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There are two pillars that use the head of Medusa for their base. These special Basilica Cistern Medusa pillars are of special interest to historians and visitors alike.The head of Medusa is upside down under one pillar and situated sideways under the other. It is not certain why the heads were used and perhaps it was merely a matter of convenience.

It can be assumed the Medusa heads are situated like this because of ancient superstition. This is because Medusa was a Gorgon with hair composed of snakes that would turn those who gazed at her into stone.

However, the heads would have been covered by 30 feet of water at the time. Perhaps they were placed in that manner because it made a better fit. Either way, they create great photo opportunities. Fortunately, we were not turned to stone so their placement is safe and effective for visitors.

Basilica Cistern Medusa Head Upsidedown

This Basilica Cistern Medusa head was placed upside down. Perhaps because it was a more practical fit or maybe due to ancient superstition.

Basilica Cistern Medusa Head Sideways

This Basilica Cistern Medusa head is found adjacent to the other one and it is placed sideways at the bottom of the pillar.

Additional Photos of Basilica Cistern

Basilica Cistern

Basilica Cistern Medusa Head

Basilica Cistern

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