Istanbul’s Ancient Basilica Cistern

ISTANBUL, Turkey (Türkiye) — This isn’t just any old water tank. Buried under the streets next to Hagia Sophia might well be the most impressive water tank you’ll ever see.

Tourists at the Basilica Cistern in Istanbul, Turkey
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This isn’t just any old water tank. Buried under the streets next to Hagia Sophia might well be the most impressive water tank you’ll ever see. Its purpose was entirely functional. Built during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian (527-565), it provided water to the imperial palace and local residents of Constantinople.

It is 140 meters long and 70 meters wide, with brick walls nearly 5 meters thick and the brick floor covered in Khorasan mortar to make it waterproof. It has the capacity to hold 100,000 tons of water. Above it once stood a basilica, now long gone.

The cistern’s builders could have been content at the engineering feat of building such an impressive underground tank in the middle of a city, let alone transporting the water from the Belgrade Forest 19 kilometers away over a series of aqueducts.

But they decided to also show off their ornamental skills by recycling marble columns from other structures, creating what became popularly known as the Sunken Palace. There are 336 marble columns, each 9 meters high, arranged in 12 rows of 28 columns. Brick arches distribute the ceiling’s considerable weight evenly over the columns. And to top it off, they added two Medusa’s heads, themselves fine examples of Roman Period art. It’s not known where they came from or why they were installed, although over the centuries a number of legends have been used to explain them.

After the Ottomans took over Istanbul in 1453, the water was used in the gardens of Topkapi Palace—the Ottomans preferred running water over stagnant water and installed their own water supply system for drinking and cooking water. The cistern became largely forgotten until a Dutch traveler, P. Gyllius, rediscovered them in the mid-16th century.

These days the Basilica Cistern is preserved only as a historic landmark. Wooden walkways have been installed, with a few lights to illuminate the gloom. Large fish still cruise the shallow waters, darting in and out of the light.

Photos of the Basilica Cistern

Medusa's Head in the Basilica Cistern in Istanbul, Turkey
ISTANBUL, Turkey (Turkiye) — One of the Medusa heads that are in the Basilica Cistern, this one forms the base of a column and is tipped on its head. Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel
Basilica Cistern wide-angle
ISTANBUL, Turkey (Turkiye) — The floor of the Cistern is permanently flooded with water, but at only a fraction of its total capacity. Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel
Basilica Cistern Marble Columns in Istanbul, Turkey
ISTANBUL, Turkey (Turkiye) — A decorated column. Most of them aren’t decorated, but a few are. Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel
Medusa head in Istanbul's Basilica Cistern
ISTANBUL, Turkey (Turkiye) — At the base of two of the 336 columns in the Basilica Cistern are two heads of Medusa. One is upside down and the other is sideways. Why they were placed that way is unknown. The cistern, located 500 feet of the Hagia Sophia on the historical peninsula of Sarayburnu, was built in the 6th century during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I. Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel
Basilica Cistern Marble Columns in Istanbul, Turkey
ISTANBUL, Turkey (Turkiye) — A view through the columns of the Basilica Cistern. Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel
Basilica Cistern Marble Columns in Istanbul, Turkey
ISTANBUL, Turkey (Turkiye) — The Basilica Cistern is located in the historical peninsular of Istanbul in the Sultanahmet district. It was built in the 6th century during the reign of Justinianus. It’s 140 metres long and 70 metres wide. There are 336 marble columns, each 9 meters high, arranged in 12 rows of 28 columns. Most are in the ionic and Corinthian styles, although a few are Doric style. The water comes from the Belgrade Woods, 19 kilometers north of the city, transported by aqueducts. Among Roman age art sculptures are two Medusa’s heads carved into columns. Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel
Arches of the Basilica Cistern Istanbul
ISTANBUL, Turkey (Turkiye) — The Basilica Cistern is located in the historical peninsular of Istanbul in the Sultanahmet district. It was built in the 6th century during the reign of Justinianus. It’s 140 meters long and 70 meters wide. There are 336 marble columns, each 9 meters high, arranged in 12 rows of 28 columns. Most are in the ionic and Corinthian styles, although a few are Doric style. The water comes from the Belgrade Woods, 19 kilometers north of the city, transported by aqueducts. Among Roman age art sculptures are two Medusa’s heads carved into columns. Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel
Basilica Cistern Marble Columns in Istanbul, Turkey
ISTANBUL, Turkey (Turkiye) — The Basilica Cistern is located in the historical peninsular of Istanbul in the Sultanahmet district. It was built in the 6th century during the reign of Justinianus. It’s 140 metres long and 70 metres wide. There are 336 marble columns, each 9 meters high, arranged in 12 rows of 28 columns. Most are in the ionic and Corinthian styles, although a few are Doric style. The water comes from the Belgrade Woods, 19 kilometers north of the city, transported by aqueducts. Among Roman age art sculptures are two Medusa’s heads carved into columns. Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel
Column with Medusa head in the Basilica Cistern Istanbul
ISTANBUL, Turkey (Turkiye) — At the base of two of the 336 columns in Istanbul’s Basilica Cistern are two heads of Medusa. One is upside down and the other is sideways. Why they were placed that way is unknown. The cistern, located 500 feet of the Hagia Sophia on the historical peninsula of Sarayburnu, was built in the 6th century during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I. Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel
Basilica Cistern in Istanbul Turkey
ISTANBUL, Turkey (Turkiye) — The Basilica Cistern is located in the historical peninsular of Istanbul in the Sultanahmet district. It was built in the 6th century during the reign of Justinianus. It’s 140 meters long and 70 meters wide. There are 336 marble columns, each 9 meters high, arranged in 12 rows of 28 columns. Most are in the ionic and Corinthian styles, although a few are Doric style. The water comes from the Belgrade Woods, 19 kilometers north of the city, transported by aqueducts. Among Roman age art sculptures are two Medusa’s heads carved into columns. Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel

More About Basilica Cistern Istanbul

  • Constructed in the 6th century during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I
  • Also known as Yerebatan Sarnıcı, which translates to “Sunken Cistern” in Turkish
  • Has the capacity to hold 80,000 cubic meters (2.8 million cubic feet) of water
  • Contains 336 marble columns, each measuring 9 meters (30 feet) in height
  • Features two Medusa head sculptures, which are believed to have been repurposed from other ancient buildings
  • Was an important source of water for the Great Palace of Constantinople and nearby buildings

The Basilica Cistern, located in Istanbul, Turkey, is an ancient underground water storage facility built in the 6th century. The cistern was constructed during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I to supply water to the Great Palace of Constantinople and the surrounding buildings. It has the capacity to hold 80,000 cubic meters (2.8 million cubic feet) of water and consists of 336 marble columns, each standing 9 meters (30 feet) tall.

The cistern is also known as Yerebatan Sarnıcı, which means “Sunken Cistern” in Turkish. One of the most intriguing features of the Basilica Cistern is the presence of two Medusa head sculptures, which are believed to have been repurposed from other ancient structures.

As you might guess from its name, it’s very close to Hagia Sophia (originally a basilica before the Ottoman’s repurposed it as a mosque). The entrance is right across the right.

What’s Nearby to Basilica Cistern Istanbul

How to Get to Basilica Cistern Istanbul

Basilica Cistern is located in the historic district of Sultanahmet in Istanbul, Turkey. The nearest major airport is Istanbul Airport (IST). To reach the cistern using public transportation, take the M1A Yenikapı-Atatürk Havalimanı tram line to the Sultanahmet stop. From there, it is a short walk to the Basilica Cistern.

What to Know Before You Go

  • It’s damp down here. It’s also slippery. The Turks have mastered many things over the millennia, but the non-skid surface isn’t one of them. So watch your step not only on the stairs but also on the walkways.
  • The Basilica Cistern is relatively compact and can be comfortably visited in half an hour or less.
  • It’s very close to both Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque.

Want to Read More About Istanbul?

Istanbul is a city of extraordinary depth and history. If you’re looking to dive deeper, here are some books worth a look. (Some are also available as audiobooks—great for a long flight or train ride.)

Istanbul: Memories and the City, by Orhan Pamuk

In this memoir, the Nobel Prize-winning Turkish author reflects on his childhood and youth in Istanbul, offering a rich portrayal of the city’s history, culture, and ever-changing landscape.

Istanbul: Memories and the City (Paperback)
  • OrhanPamuk (Author)
  • 07/31/2006 (Publication Date) – VintageBooksUSA (Publisher)

The Innocents Abroad, by Mark Twain

This classic travelogue follows Mark Twain as he journeys through Europe and the Holy Land, including a visit to Istanbul, which he captures with his trademark wit and humor.

The Innocents Abroad: Original Illustrations
  • Twain, Mark (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)

Strolling Through Istanbul: The Classic Guide to the City, by Hilary Sumner-Boyd and John Freely

This comprehensive guide and travelogue takes readers on a historical and cultural journey through Istanbul, detailing its most famous landmarks and hidden gems.

Strolling Through Istanbul: The Classic Guide to the City
  • Sumner-Boyd, Hilary (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)

The Bridge on the Drina, by Ivo Andrić

This historical novel, by a winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, is set in the Ottoman Empire. It tells the story of the construction of the famous Mehmed Paša Sokolović Bridge in Višegrad, Bosnia and Herzegovina and the lives of the people who lived around it. While not set in Istanbul specifically, it offers a window into the wider region’s history and Ottoman influence.

The Bridge on the Drina (Phoenix Fiction)
  • Andric, Ivo (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)

A Fez of the Heart: Travels Around Turkey in Search of a Hat, by Jeremy Seal

This travelogue follows the author’s journey through Turkey, including a visit to Istanbul, as he explores the country’s history, culture, and politics, all while searching for the once-iconic fez hat.

A Fez of the Heart: Travels around Turkey in Search of a Hat
  • Seal, Jeremy (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)

The Birds Have Also Gone, by Yashar Kemal

In this novel, set in Istanbul, the author tells the story of three boys who capture and sell pigeons in the city, offering a unique perspective on the city’s rapidly changing landscape and the challenges faced by its inhabitants.

The Birds Have Also Gone
  • Kemal, Yaşar (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)

The Towers of Trebizond, by Rose Macaulay

This satirical travelogue (i.e., a novel) follows the narrator as she embarks on an eccentric journey to Istanbul and the ancient city of Trebizond, exploring themes of love, religion, and the clash of cultures.

The Towers of Trebizond: A Novel (FSG Classics)
  • Macaulay, Rose (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)

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Travel Advice for Turkey (Turkiye)

You can find the latest U.S. Department of State travel advisories and information for Turkey (Turkiye) (such as entry visa requirements and vaccination requirements) here.

The British and Australian governments offer their own country-specific travel information. You can find the British Government's travel advice for Turkey (Turkiye) here and the Australian Government's here.

Health & Vaccinations

The CDC makes country-specific recommendations for vaccinations and health for travelers. You can find their latest information for Turkey (Turkiye) here.

General Information on Turkey (Turkiye)

The CIA's World Factbook contains a lot of good factual information Turkey (Turkiye) and is updated frequently.

  • Official Name: Republic of Turkey (Türkiye Cumhuriyeti)
  • Location: Southeastern Europe and Southwestern Asia (the Anatolian Peninsula), bordered by eight countries: Greece and Bulgaria to the northwest, Georgia to the northeast, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Iran to the east, and Iraq and Syria to the south
  • Coastline: Mediterranean Sea to the south, Aegean Sea to the west, and Black Sea to the north
  • Capital: Ankara
  • Largest City: Istanbul
  • Population (2021 estimate): 85 million
  • Ethnic Groups: Predominantly Turkish (70-75%), Kurds (19%), and other minorities (including Arabs, Circassians, and Laz)
  • Official Language: Turkish
  • Religions: Islam (predominantly Sunni), with small Christian and Jewish communities
  • Government: Unitary parliamentary republic
  • President (as of 2021): Recep Tayyip Erdoğan
  • Prime Minister (as of 2021): Not applicable (the position was abolished in 2018)
  • Area: 783,356 square kilometers (302,455 square miles)
  • GDP (2021 estimate): $771 billion (nominal)
  • GDP per capita (2021 estimate): $9,042 (nominal)
  • Currency: Turkish Lira (TRY)
  • Time Zone: GMT+3 (Turkey Time)
  • Internet TLD: .tr
  • Calling Code: +90
  • Major Industries: Textiles, food processing, automotive, electronics, tourism, mining, steel, petroleum, construction, lumber, paper
  • Natural Resources: Coal, iron ore, copper, chromium, antimony, mercury, gold, barite, borate, celestite, emery, feldspar, limestone, magnesite, marble, perlite, pumice, pyrites, clay, hydropower, arable land

Turkey vs Turkiye vs Türkiye

The country's name has traditionally been Anglicized as Turkey, and that's how most of us have always known it. But the country's government has been pushing for adoption of the Turkish-language name, Türkiye. Since that doesn't always work well on Anglicized keyboards, you also often see it rendered as Turkiye. You can find more information on this here.

David Coleman / Photographer

David Coleman

I'm a freelance travel photographer based in Washington DC. Seven continents, up mountains, underwater, and a bunch of places in between. My images have appeared in numerous publications, and you can check out some of my gear reviews and tips here. More »