The Basilica Cistern (known in Turkish as Yerebatan Sarnıcı or sunken cistern) is located near the Hagia Sophia in the Sultanahmet district of Istanbul. It is a popular tourist destination but is easy to miss due to its underground location. However we found it fairly easily due to the tout who kindly showed us the entrance, albeit after he took us to his leather warehouse and showed us some jackets whilst we imbibed in some free apple tea. Once there we paid 10 YTL entrance fee and then descended the steps into the darkness. The Basilica Cistern is sometimes referred to as The Sunken Palace and it’s easy to see why. As you walk down the stairs you will see a large reservoir stretching further than you can see in the darkness, between the water and the ceiling there is a forest of 336 30ft high marble columns stretching up to a brick made domed ceiling, the columns are arranged in 12 rows each 28 columns long. The air is cool and damp (perfect respite from the hot sun outside) and each column has an up lighter making for an unusual and slightly spooky atmosphere. A wooden walkway has been constructed allowing you to stroll around the underground cavern with the other tourists, who all talk in hushed voices and lean over railings to look at the water which is teaming with carp. As you come to the exit there is a small stage which is apparently sometimes used for musical events (which must be very atmospheric) or artistic exhibitions.
The Basilica Cistern was constructed at the behest of The Emperor Justinianus in 542AD after the great Basilica that formerly stood on the spot was destroyed in Nika rebellion in 532AD. It was designed to supply water to Great Palace of Constantinople and fed by two aqueducts. Seven thousand slaves took part in the construction of the 105,000 sq ft Cistern, which has the capacity to store 100.000 tons of water. In the northwest corner of the cistern are two carved medusa heads that have been used as column bases. They are thought to be late Roman origin; mysteriously one is place upside-down and the other on its side. The cistern has been restored both in the 18th and 19th century. The cistern was also famously used in the 1963 James Bond film “From Russia with Love” when Mr Bond comically uses a periscope hidden in the cistern to spy on the Soviet embassy.
The best way to travel the area is via Eminönü- Zeytinburnu tram, the entrance is near the tram lines on the opposite side to the Hagia Sophia museum on Yerebatan Caddesi. If you want a map and directions of the area there is a tourist information office right next to the tramway.