top of page

Hidden Gems of Istanbul: The Mysterious Basilica Cistern

Istanbul has always been a city of wonders. From the Byzantine empire to the Ottoman empire, it has been home to big civilizations, and, therefore, has many monuments left for us to see today. One of them is the Subterranean Cistern. Located in the southwest of Hagia Sophia in Fatih, Istanbul, this underground monument has been used for many different purposes. It has provided water to not only the Great Palace of Constantinople but also to the Topkapı Palace. Let's discover the mysterious history of this masterpiece and see why it is one of the most visited places in Istanbul.

The Basilica Cistern, known in Turkish as ‘Yerebatan Sarnıcı’, was built by the Byzantine emperor I. Justinianus. Because it is the biggest of ancient cisterns under Istanbul, it is also known as the ‘Subterranean Palace’. One of its other names is ‘The Basilica Cistern’ because it was located under a large basilica named the Ilius. A Basilica in Ancient Roman Architecture is a big public building with different functions. It can be used for religious rituals or just as a gathering place for the people. The Subterranean Cistern’s main purpose during the time it was first constructed was to provide water for civilians and for the Great Palace of Constantinople. The Cistern was able to hold 80.000 cubic meters of water. After the Conquer of Constantinople by the Ottoman Empire, the cistern was not used as much. However, it still continued being used for the gardens and pools in the Topkapı Palace. After a while, when the Ottoman Empire built its own water systems, the Cistern was forgotten. It was not until a French traveler, Pierre Gyllius rediscovered it. While he was researching Byzantine architecture in the city, he realized that people had holes in their basement through which they could have access to water, and sometimes even catch fish. Thanks to Pierre Gyllius, the Subterranean Cistern was rediscovered.

The Cistern has gone through many restorations. The first restoration was made by Ahmed the third in the eighteenth century. Sultan Abdulhamid the second also made some restorations. In 1987, after restoring and cleaning the Cistern, the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality opened it as a museum to the public. It underwent some earthquake-proofing in 2017 and was reopened in 2022. With its cool atmosphere and beautiful design, it is now one of the most visited places in Istanbul. The interior design of the cistern also has some pretty statues such as the two medusa heads. The reason only two of them were used as the base of two columns is unknown. However it is said that they were reused from an ancient Roman building. Some people like to make wishes and throw coins in the little puddles that surround the medusa heads. The Cistern’s water came from the Eğrikapı Water Distribution Center located in the Belgrade forest. It went through the Valens (Bozdoğan) Aqueduct and through the Moğlova Aqueduct, which was built by the Byzantine Emperor, Justinian. As discovered by Pierre Gyllius, people were able to reach the water through holes in their basements.

The Cistern was also used in films and even games. One of the most famous films it is used in is the 1963 James Bond film called From Russia with Love. In the game Assassin’s Creed: Revelations the Subterranean Cistern is used as a location for players to explore.

The Cistern built by the Byzantine Emperor is not only one of the hidden gems of Istanbul, but, with its mesmerizing architecture, it is also used in pop culture for films and even video games. Having served multiple civilizations, we can say that this monument definitely contributes to the multicultural atmosphere of Istanbul.

Work Cited:

Basilica Cistern, Wikipedia

Accessed: 24 November, 2022.

The Basilica Cistern, the Coolest Spot in Town, Istanbul Insider

Accessed: 24 November, 2022.

Going Deep in The Aisles of History: Basilica Cistern

Accessed: 25 November, 2022.

Bazilika, Wikipedia

Accessed: 25 November, 2022.

The Yerebatan Cistern

Accessed: 26 November, 2022.


Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page