Basilica Cistern

Photo by: Dpnuevo, CC

The Basilica Cistern is also called the Sunken Cistern, and it is found in Istanbul, Turkey. There are hundreds of ancient cisterns under the city and this one is the largest. It is situated on the historical Sarayburnu peninsula. The cistern was constructed in the sixth century when the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I ruled.

History of the Cistern

This subterranean structure’s name comes from a very large community square that is situated on the First Hill in the city, called the Stoa Basilica. It was built somewhere between the third and fourth centuries in early Roman times as a legal, commercial, and artistic center. The basilica had to be reconstructed after it was damaged by a fire in 476.

Several ancient texts revealed that the basilica had gardens that were bordered by a large colonnade that faced the Hagia Sophia. Ancient historians believe that Emperor Constantine had the structure built and it was later enlarged in 532. Emperor Justinian fixed and expanded it because the Nika riots had ruined parts of the structure. Some historical texts state that seven thousand slaves worked on its construction.

This large cistern contained an enormous water filtration system that was used for Constantinople’s Great Palace, as well as other structures in the First Hill area. It also supplied water for the Topkapi Palace following the 1453 Ottoman conquest. This cistern has gone through several restorations since it was first built. One of its first repairs was in the eighteenth century when Ahmed III ruled in 1723.

The second biggest restoration occurred in the nineteenth century when Sultan Abdulhamid II ruled. In 1968, many damaged columns and masonry cracks were repaired. The Istanbul Metropolitan Museum had more restoration done in 1985. During this restoration, fifty thousand tons of mud ended up being removed. Platforms were also built so people could tour the cistern. The Basilica cistern opened in its present condition to the public in September of 1987.

Dimensions and Features

The Basilica Cistern has an underground chamber that is nearly 108,000 square feet. It is able to hold one hundred thousand tons of water. Today, it only has a few feet of water that lines the bottom area.

Its ceiling is held up by more than three hundred marble columns which are almost 30 feet high. The columns’ capitals mostly have Corinthian and Ionic styles, except for a couple that have a Doric style. Most of the cistern’s columns may have originally been used in other buildings that had been ruined. The columns are engraved and were carved from different kinds of granite and marble.

Medusa Column Bases

There are two columns blocks that have the image of Medusa carved into them. The origin of them is not known, but some historians believe they were originally from another period in the Roman Empire era. Many believe that the blocks were inverted and positioned sideways to lessen the strength of the Gorgons’ look; however, others believe it was done to support the column so it would not break.

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