Tourist’s guide to Basilica Cistern: a mysterious structure under Istanbul

The Basilica Cistern is one of the most mysterious buildings in Istanbul, which is causing more and more interest among curious travelers. This underground structure, built more than 15 centuries ago, is located in the area of ​​the famous city square Sultanahmed . It once served as the main reservoir of Constantinople. Today, the old building is a museum with a considerable number of notable objects.

Basilica Cistern

The Basilica Cistern goes deep into a distance of about 12 meters. It is able to accommodate up to 80 thousand cubic meters of water. The walls of the building are 4 meters thick, and a special solution is applied to their surface, which makes it waterproof. On the territory of the attraction, 336 columns are installed, arranged in 12 rows and serving as the main support for the vaulted ceiling. The height of each of them is from 8 to 12 meters. Many researchers agree that these columns were not built specifically for the object, but were brought from other previously destroyed ancient buildings.

From the photo of the Basilica Cistern in Istanbul, it is difficult to understand that this building once served as a reservoir: now the attraction is more like an ancient temple than a water tank. This is its mystery and tourist attraction. What you can see in the underground basilica and how to get there, we will consider in detail in our article.

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Short story

The construction of the Basilica Cistern began at the beginning of the 4th century under the reign of Emperor Constantine I. They decided to build a tank on the site of the former Hagia Sophia, which was destroyed by a major fire. That is why the tank got its name. Some researchers believe that at least 7,000 slaves participated in the construction, many of whom died here. The construction of the tank lasted more than 200 years, and came to an end only in 532 during the reign of Emperor Justinian.

Basilica Cistern without water

It should be understood that the tank was built in the ancient era, and the engineers of that time had to carry out incredibly complex work on the construction of a water pipe several kilometers long. A stream of water flowed from the Belgrade forest along the Valenta aqueduct and entered the reservoir through the pipes of the eastern wall. The Basilica cistern could hold up to one hundred thousand tons of water: such volumes were required in case of an unforeseen drought or a blockade of the city during hostilities.

Column capital

With the advent of the Ottoman conquerors in Istanbul in the 15th century, the reservoir loses its significance. For some time, its reserves were used to irrigate the gardens of Topkapi Palace , but soon, on the orders of Suleiman the Magnificent, a new reservoir was built in the city, and the Basilica Cistern fell into decay, and its existence was completely forgotten. In the following centuries, several European researchers again discovered the ancient abandoned reservoir, but in those years it did not cause the slightest interest in the authorities.

At the entrance to the Basilica Cistern

The value of the tank as a historical monument was seen only in the 20th century. Then it was decided to carry out cleaning and restoration work within its walls. For hundreds of years, tons of dirt have accumulated in the tank, so the restoration took quite a lot of time. As a result, the basilica was cleaned, its floors were concreted, and wooden floors were installed on them for ease of movement. The official opening of the museum took place only in 1987. Today, in the Basilica Cistern in Istanbul, you can also see water seeping from the ground, but its level above the floor does not exceed half a meter.

What to see

First of all, it is worth noting the special atmosphere prevailing in the walls of the underground basilica. Subdued lighting and calm music in conjunction with ancient architecture create a certain raid of mystery and immersion in the past. At the same time, the museum has its own attractions that attract the most attention of tourists.

Crying column

Among the three hundred columns located in the tank, one stands out, which is called the “crying” one. Unlike others, this column is decorated with teardrop-shaped patterns. In addition, she is always in a wet state. These two factors caused this name. Some believe that it was erected in memory of the slaves who gave their lives to build the tank.

Crying column

Interestingly, one of the ornaments has a small hole, which, according to local legend, can help in the realization of your dreams. To do this, simply put your thumb in the recess, rotate it and make a wish.

Columns with Jellyfish
Column with the head of Medusa at the base

Two columns mounted on blocks with the face of the Medusa of the Gorgon cause even more curiosity among tourists: one of the heads lies on its side, and the other is completely turned upside down. These sculptures are considered the brightest representatives of Roman architecture. It is still unknown how they got to the Basilica Cistern, but one thing is clear – they were moved here from another ancient building.

There are several theories of this unusual position of the sculptures of Medusa. According to one version, the builders intentionally turned their heads so that the mythical character, known for his ability to turn people into stone, would lose this opportunity. Another theory, completely opposite to the first, claims that they wanted to show their disregard for Medusa Gorgon. Well, the third, the most logical option suggests that a similar position of the blocks was simply more suitable in size for the installation of columns.

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Practical information

Address: Alemdar Mh., Yerebatan Cd. 1/3, 34410, Sultanahmed Square, Fatih District, Istanbul.

Basilica Cistern Tickets

Opening hours of the Basilica Cistern: the museum is open daily from 09:00 to 18:30 in the summer and in the winter season. The attraction works on a shortened schedule on January 1, as well as in the early days of Muslim holidays – from 13:00 to 18:30.

The cost of visiting: the price of the entrance ticket for September 2018 is 20 tl. The museum map on the territory of the complex is not valid. You can pay for the ticket only in cash.

Official website:

If you want to not only see the attraction, but also learn as much as possible interesting things about Istanbul from a local resident, you can book a city tour. You will find a selection of the best guides for tourist reviews on this page .

Interesting Facts

Such a historical object as the Basilica Cistern simply cannot do without a few interesting facts, of which we have collected the most worthwhile:

The walls of the Basilica Cistern have excellent acoustics
  1. The walls of the Basilica Cistern have excellent acoustics, which is why symphony orchestras often perform here and jazz concerts are held.
  2. The attraction has more than once served as a film set for world-famous films. It was here that several episodes of the Odyssey by Andrey Konchalovsky were filmed. The directors of Bondiana also noticed this place, and it appeared in the frames of the second part of the film “From Russia with Love.”
  3. American writer Dan Brown chose Cistern Basilica as the key spot in his novel Inferno.
  4. Many tourists believe in the myth that the museum has water to its chest, but in reality in most of the territory its level does not exceed 50 cm.
  5. In some ponds of the museum you can meet carps
  6. Some sources claim that earlier local residents used an underground structure for fishing. Even today, in some ponds of the museum you can meet carps, which are often called the silent guardians of the tank.
  7. Outside above the tank is now the police office and part of the tramway.
  8. Near the Weeping Column there is a small pond called the Wish Basin. Here you can also make a wish by throwing a coin in the water.
  9. It is noteworthy that the basilica is not the only underground building in Istanbul. To date, more than 40 different tanks have been found in the metropolis.

Note: you can look at Istanbul from a height by visiting one of the observation platforms of the city. Where they are – see this article .

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Useful Tips

A visit to any tourist site requires careful planning and information knowledge. Many tourists make a big mistake, not preparing in advance for the tour. And so that you can avoid trouble during a visit to the tank of Istanbul, we have collected for you the most useful tips from travelers who have already visited the place:

At the cistern, a crowd of people gathers at the box office during the day
  1. Before you go to the sights, be sure to check whether the building is being renovated. Some tourists, having got inside during the restoration, were very disappointed.
  2. Like any other historical monument, a crowd of people gathers at the box office during the day. In order not to stand in lines, we advise you to arrive at the place early in the morning. Recall that the opening hours of the Basilica Cistern in Istanbul are from 09:00 to 18:30. Therefore, it is most reasonable to arrive at 09:00.
  3. The maximum time that is worth spending on studying the museum is no more than 30 minutes.
  4. At the entrance, they offer a photo session in the costume of the Sultan
  5. For lovers of unusual shots: everyone at the entrance to the tank is offered a photo shoot in the costume of the Sultan. The cost of the event is $ 30.
  6. Currently, this Istanbul museum does not give out an audio guide, so we recommend that you download it to your phone from the Internet first. Otherwise, your entire tour will take no more than 10 minutes.
  7. Since the basilica is quite wet, in some parts of it you can slip and fall. Therefore, going here, it is better to wear comfortable non-slip shoes.
  8. Signs in the tank warn tourists that photography is prohibited. Nevertheless, travelers can take photos without any administrative consequences.


Basilica Cistern can be a great addition to your Istanbul tour. The mere fact that this building is already over 1000 years old provides a good reason for visiting an ancient monument. And to fully enjoy this attraction, do not lose sight of our recommendations.

You will find out some more interesting facts about the attraction by watching the video.

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