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Basilica Cistern History: Byzantine Origins, Ancient Roman Medusa Heads, & More

The Basilica Cistern, or the Yerebatan Sirnici (Sunken Palace), as it is commonly known, was constructed during the Byzantine era to supply water to the Imperial Palace and its surrounding buildings. This ancient water reserve has around 336 columns, 2 Medusa Heads, and many arches. Look out for the ‘Weeping Column’, one of its many columns, that has carvings of peacock and tree branches, in memory of the hundreds of slaves who sacrificed their lives during the cistern’s construction. 

Basilica Cistern history timeline

  • 6th Century: The Basilica Cistern was constructed to supply water to the Byzantine Imperial Palace.
  • 16th Century: The underground cistern functioned as the Ottoman Empire’s water reserve and supplied water to the Topkapi Palace.
  • 20th Century: The cistern was restored by the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality, illuminated with lights, and opened to the public as The Basilica Cistern Museum.

History of Basilica Cistern explained

Basilica Cistern in the Byzantine Period

Byzantine Era

6th Century 

The construction of the Basilica Cistern was commissioned by Byzantine Emperor Justinian I in the 6th century CE. It was built to supply water to the Great Palace and other buildings in the city. It features a vast network of vaulted ceilings supported by 336 marble columns. Many of the columns were repurposed from earlier structures, and some of them bear engravings and carvings from earlier civilizations, including the Roman and Greek eras.

Basilica Cistern in the Ottoman Era

Ottoman Era

16th Century

During the Ottoman reign in Turkey, the Basilica Cistern was used to supply water to the Topkapi Palace and its surrounding buildings. It was also used to sustain the city during times of drought or siege.  During the time of the Ottoman Empire, the cistern was restored twice: once when Sultan Ahmed III was ruling, and again when Sultan Abdulhamid II was in charge.

basilica cistern history

Modern Era

20th Century

Between 1955 and 1960, nine columns were covered with concrete to stop them from falling. Then, from 1985 to 1987, the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality restored the Byzantine cistern completely and installed pathways for people to walk on. That's when they found the famous blocks with Medusa heads, which are important symbols of the cistern. After this restoration, the site was opened to the public as a museum.

Basilica Cistern today

Today, the Basilica Cistern is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Istanbul. In addition to the rows of 336 columns and the 2 Medusa heads, the cistern also features a variety of other elements, including stone faces, branches, and peacocks carved on columns. It stands as a significant reminder of the ingenuity and skill of the ancient builders who constructed it. If you are interested in history or getting up close to the rich heritage and culture of Istanbul, make sure to visit the Basilica Cistern.




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Frequently asked questions about the Basilica Cistern history

How old is the Basilica Cistern?

The Basilica Cistern was constructed around 532 AD when Emperor Justinian commissioned it. It was used to supply water to the Imperial Palace and its surrounding buildings. 

How many years did it take to build the Basilica Cistern?

Emperor Justinian I commissioned this Cistern during the 6th century AD. It took around 38 years to complete the construction of the Basilica Cistern. Approximately, 7000 slaves worked to make the Cistern. 

Who built the Basilica Cistern?

The Basilica Cistern was designed by the architect Tralles and constructed by more than 7000 slaves, many of whom died during the 38-year construction period. 

What is the historical significance of the Basilica Cistern?

The Basilica Cistern was built during the 6th century AD to supply water to the Byzantine Imperial Palace and its surrounding buildings. It was used until the Ottoman rule to deliver water to the Topkapi Palace and its Imperial Harem.

What is the Basilica Cistern famous for?

Basilica Cistern is an ancient water reserve, built to supply water to the Byzantine Imperial Palace and its surrounding buildings. The arches and columns are illuminated and make for a unique and eerie atmosphere when you visit the attraction. The cistern is also famous for its Medusa heads positioned at the base of two columns.

What is the architectural style of the Basilica Cistern?

The Basilica Cistern was constructed during the Byzantine era. It features a combination of brick walls and vaulted ceilings, which are supported by a total of 336 marble columns. Many of these columns were repurposed from earlier structures and feature carvings and engravings from earlier civilizations. 

How much does it cost to visit the Basilica Cistern?

It cost around €23.90 to visit the Basilica Cistern. You can enjoy skip-the-line benefits and get an audio guide with Basilica Cistern tickets.

Are there guided tours explaining the Basilica Cistern’s history?

Yes, you can book Basilica Cistern guided tours to explore the history of this unique site. An English-speaking guide will meet you at the designated entrance and take you on a comprehensive tour sharing deep insights into the Byzantine civilization and Ottoman architecture.

Is it worth visiting the Basilica Cistern?

Yes, if you love history, you must visit the Basilica Cistern. It had been built during the 6th century to supply water to the Byzantine Palace and its surrounding buildings. Today, it is a collection of 336 columns and arches, standing proud as a testament to the engineering skills of the ancient builders.