Welcome to the Basilica Cistern, one of Istanbul’s most intriguing and atmospheric historical sites. Nestled beneath the bustling streets of the city, this ancient underground reservoir offers a fascinating glimpse into the engineering prowess and rich history of the Byzantine Empire. Join us as we explore the secrets and beauty of the Basilica Cistern Museum.

A Brief History

The Basilica Cistern, known in Turkish as “Yerebatan Sarnıcı” (Cistern of the Basilica), was commissioned by Emperor Justinian I in the 6th century, around 532 AD. It was constructed to provide a secure water supply to the Great Palace of Constantinople and surrounding buildings. The cistern’s name derives from the large public square, Stoa Basilica, under which it was originally built.

Architectural Marvel

The Basilica Cistern is an extraordinary feat of ancient engineering. Covering an area of approximately 9,800 square meters, it can hold up to 80,000 cubic meters of water. The cistern is supported by 336 marble columns, each about 9 meters high, arranged in 12 rows of 28 columns. These columns were likely repurposed from older Roman structures, showcasing the resourcefulness of Byzantine builders.

Atmospheric Interior

Descending into the Basilica Cistern is like stepping into a hidden, subterranean world. The dimly lit interior, with its forest of columns reflected in the shallow water, creates an eerie yet enchanting atmosphere. The sound of dripping water and the play of light and shadow enhance the mystical experience of exploring this underground marvel.

Medusa Heads

Among the most famous features of the Basilica Cistern are the two Medusa heads used as column bases. One head is placed sideways, and the other is upside down. The origins and reasons for their positioning remain a mystery, sparking various legends and theories. Some suggest that the heads were deliberately placed in these positions to neutralize the power of Medusa’s gaze, while others believe it was simply a practical decision by the builders.

Fish in the Cistern

Another interesting aspect of the cistern is the presence of fish swimming in its waters. These fish were introduced to the cistern as a natural way to control mosquito populations and help keep the water clean. Watching the fish glide through the water adds to the serene and otherworldly ambiance of the site.

Visitor Experience

The Basilica Cistern Museum offers a unique and memorable experience for visitors. As you walk along the raised wooden platforms, you can marvel at the ancient columns and the vastness of the underground space. Informational panels provide insight into the history and significance of the cistern, enriching your understanding of this remarkable structure.

Photography is encouraged, and the dim lighting creates opportunities for stunning, atmospheric shots. Be sure to take your time to appreciate the intricate details of the columns and the Medusa heads, as well as the overall scale and grandeur of the cistern.

Significance Today

The Basilica Cistern is not just a historical site; it is also a cultural landmark that has inspired art, literature, and film. Its unique setting has made it a popular filming location for movies and TV shows, adding to its allure and mystique. Today, it stands as a testament to the ingenuity of Byzantine engineering and the rich cultural heritage of Istanbul.


The Basilica Cistern is a must-visit destination for anyone interested in the history, architecture, and hidden treasures of Istanbul. Its subterranean beauty and mysterious atmosphere offer a captivating journey into the past. Whether you are a history buff, an architecture enthusiast, or simply looking for a unique experience, the Basilica Cistern Museum will leave you in awe.

Plan your visit to the Basilica Cistern and uncover the secrets of this ancient underground marvel.

Enjoy your exploration of the Basilica Cistern!