Istanbul Attractions: Going underground to the Basilica Cistern

Like every traveler who likes to look beyond the ‘must see’ I was curious about different Istanbul attractions on my recent visit to the city but it still seemed like a somewhat silly idea.

We were standing at the beginning of Divan Yoglu, the winding main street which crosses Istanbul’s historical Sultanahmed district. Blue Mosque in front, Hagia Sofia behind us, the Grand Bazaar only 15 minutes walk to the right, Topkapi about the same distance to the left, glorious sunshine, cloudless skies—why would we want to descent into the netherworld?

“Because,” my Turkish friend Mehmet pointed out, “you will see a sight that will take your breath away.”

He was referring to the Basilica Cistern, a huge labyrinth of more than 300 marble columns supporting a vaulted ceiling over what once was the biggest water reservoir in Istanbul. Built by Justinian after 532, the cistern was fed by spring water to provide the palace and surrounding buildings with water. It served that purpose during the Byzantine and Ottoman period but then fell into disarray.

In 1985, the city of Istanbul undertook a great cleaning up job and restored the cistern to its former glory making it a worthwhile addition to your Istanbul sightseeing.

The entrance is only a few yards away from Hagia Sofia. We paid our admission of TYL10 and descended rather steep and somewhat slippery stone steps. When we rounded the last bent, an involuntary “ahhh” escaped our lips.

Rows upon rows of marble columns, topped with either Corinthian or Dorian capitols, soared towards a ceiling so high it’s nearly out of sight. The columns are lighted from below and stand in shallow water, populated by a multitude of carps and gold fish. Soft music enhances the fairy tale atmosphere.

Wooden walkways lead around and among the columns into the even darker depth of the reservoir. Three columns in the back rest upon blocks adorned with images of the Medusa, standing on her head or lying on her side. Theories differ as to why the pagan image was placed that way.

You can prolong the experience by having a great Turkish coffee and baklava or any other of the many Turkish pastries in the café near the entrance. There are only a few tables and the only light comes from flickering candles.

The cistern has great acoustic too, which is why classical concerts are performed there quite often. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the chance, but if you can, don’t miss it.

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