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Basilica Cistern (Sunken Palace/Yerebatan Sarnıcı)

Basilica Cistern is one of the most mysterious and surprisingly romantic attraction in the city, and also it is the largest of several hundred ancient cisterns that lie beneath the city.  This subterranean structure was commissioned by Emperor Justinian after the Nika riots of 532, which devastated the city.

This cathedral-size cistern was built in 532, located on the historical peninsula of Sarayburnu, is an underground chamber approximately 138 metres in area – capable of holding 80,000 cubic metres of water. The ceiling contains 336 marble columns, each 9 metres high, arranged in 12 rows of 28 columns each spaced 4.9 metres apart. So, you can see the large underground space that stored the vast amount of water.

It lies underneath the Stoa Basilica, that’s why people call it “Sunken Palace”. Designed to service the Great Palace and nearby buildings but it was closed when the Byzantine emperors left the palace.

Cistern has an untold story, it was forgotten after so many years and finally it was rediscovered by Frenchman Peter Gyllius in 1545. Since cisterns rediscovery, it has undergone many renovations over the years. In 1987, after 2 years of renovations, the Basilica Cistern was finally opened to the guests.

When you step inside, you notice the air become cooler, it is like a natural air conditioning and cool underground air provides a peaceful reprieve. After a little while you see the impressive 336 marble columns which create an authentic ambiance with their twisted skyline. Marbles views are outstanding because of their reflections on the water, also its view looks like a photograph from a movie. It is both romantic and breathe taking at the same time indeed. Sometimes you hear a drop of water falling from the ceilings and it still drips melancholically. When you look down the water, you can see fish swimming around the columns.

Most admiring part of this underground wonder is the upside-down heads of Medusa, located in the northwest corner of the cistern. One of the heads positioned upside down, the other tilted to the side. The story is no one who looked at the heads would turn to stone. The origin of the two heads is unknown, but they were not an original fixture of the cistern but rumor is they were recycled form an antique building of the late Roman period.

The cistern was used as a location for the James Bond film From Russia with Love. In the film, it is referred to as being constructed by the Emperor Constantine, with no reference to Justinian, and is located under the Soviet (now Russian) consulate. Its real-life location is a considerable distance from the consulate, which is in Beyoğlu, the “newer” European section of Istanbul, on the other side of the Golden Horn. (Vikipedia)

It’s a great place to escape from the crowded streets of the city and fascinating architectural undertaking. You can spend about 30-60 minutes here depending on the line to see the Medusa heads.

The cistern is in the Sultanahmet area and just few steps away from the Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque and Topkapi Palace. There are lots of restaurants and cafes nearby the cistern in case you need a break!

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