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The Mystical Depths of Istanbul's Basilica Cistern

The Mystical Depths of Istanbul's Basilica Cistern

Delve Deep into History: Discover Istanbul’s Enchanting Basilica Cistern

Immersed in the hypnotic allure that envelops Istanbul, the Basilica Cistern is an unmissable treasure that whispers tales of the city’s vibrant past. As you navigate through the bustling lanes, where the air is a tapestry of exotic scents and the skyline is dotted with the majestic silhouettes of mosques and palaces, you'll stumble upon this subterranean marvel, waiting to transport you to another time. Constructed in the 6th century during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, the Basilica Cistern is the largest of its kind in Istanbul. With its forest of 336 columns, each standing at a towering height of 9 meters, and its enchanting atmosphere, this ancient cistern is a symphony of history, architecture, and mystery. Whether you're a fervent history enthusiast or a traveler seeking the magic hidden in the city’s crevices, the Basilica Cistern offers an experience as deep and captivating as the waters it once held.Experience effortless travel through Istanbul with one of our chauffeur-driven vehicles at your service, designed to facilitate seamless exploration of the city's myriad historical sites in a single day. Embark on a private, tranquil journey from your hotel to the mesmerizing Basilica Cistern with a simple click here for seemless airport transfers. Transform your Istanbul visits into a symphony of comfort and discovery, where convenience meets the allure of history.

Join us, as we unveil the magic concealed beneath the city’s surface, exploring the serene and mystical ambiance of the Basilica Cistern, where every drop of water echoes a story, every stone has witnessed centuries unfold, and every shadow plays with the golden gleam of the soft, illuminating lights. 

Unveiling Istanbul’s Hidden Gem: The Basilica Cistern

Basilica Cistern & The Enigmatic Head of Medusa

A Majestic Relic of Constantinople: The Basilica Cistern graces Istanbul's historic Sultanahmet area, residing in harmonious contrast beside the illustrious Hagia Sophia. With its inception tracing back 1500 years under the aegis of Byzantine Emperor Justinian, the Cistern is colloquially dubbed "The Palace" due to its maze of marble pillars that majestically pierce through the tranquil waters below. Its alternative name, “Basilica,” harkens to a once-standing Basilica originally occupying the Cistern’s present location.

Architectural Grandeur: Encompassing a sprawling underground expanse of approximately 10,000 square meters, the Cistern boasts the capacity to house around 100,000 tons of water. It flaunts an assembly of 336 columns, each soaring to a height of 9 meters, meticulously arranged in 12 rows of 28, standing at intervals of 4.80 meters. A significant number of these columns, crafted from an array of marble types, were salvaged from pre-existing structures. The Cistern reveals a tapestry of unique column heads, each bearing distinct characteristics and designs. During the renovations between 1955-1960, several columns received reinforcement with concrete layers, altering their original features. Arches seamlessly transfer the ceiling's weight onto these columns, supported by robust walls and a floor both composed of brick and fortified with a thick layer of mortar to ensure waterproofing.

Historical Utility: During the Ottoman era, the Cistern played a pivotal role in irrigating Topkapı Palace's verdant gardens. Its crucial function extended to satiating the water requirements of the Great Palace's inhabitants and the surrounding localities during Byzantine times.

Rediscovery of a Marvel: The mid-16th century witnessed the Dutch traveler P. Gyllius stumbling upon the Cistern while exploring the vicinity of Hagia Sophia. Intrigued by residents drawing water from well-like holes in their homes, Gyllius embarked on an exploration, delving into the Cistern through stone steps that led him into its cool, echoing depths. Despite challenging conditions, his exploratory journey through the water-filled space allowed him to measure and document the columns, leaving behind a record that inspired many future travelers.

Restoration Chronicles: The Basilica Cistern underwent restoration processes twice during the Ottoman period, with the initial refurbishment led by Architect Mehmet Ağa under Sultan Ahmet III in 1723. Subsequently, Sultan Abdülhamid II oversaw its second restoration between 1876-1909. Following a significant cleanup by Istanbul Municipality in 1987, the Cistern transformed into a museum, welcoming visitors with its newly installed viewing platform. After a subsequent significant cleaning in 1994, it closed for an extensive restoration and finally reopened its gates to the public on July 22, 2022.

Visiting the Revitalized Cistern in 2023: The Basilica Cistern operates from 09:00 AM to 07:00 PM daily, with its hours last updated in August 2023. Engage with history as you traverse through its echoing, serene space, every day of the week.

Basilica Cistern's Crown Jewel: The Enigmatic Head of Medusa

The Enigmatic Heads of Medusa within the Basilica Cistern

A Masterpiece of Roman Sculptural Art: The Heads of Medusa, sculptural masterpieces emblematic of the Roman Period, are discreetly positioned as pedestals beneath two columns in a secluded corner of the Basilica Cistern. The origins of these intriguing heads, seamlessly integrated into the cistern’s architecture, remain shrouded in mystery. Scholars speculate that these heads were purposefully incorporated during the cistern’s construction, serving merely as architectural bases for the columns.

Unveiling Legends of the Underground: Medusa’s Tale: Medusa, a name that echoes with a chilling resonance, represents one of the three Gorgons in Greek mythology — formidable female entities residing in the underworld, whose petrifying gaze could transmute living flesh into lifeless stone. With their snake-coiled heads and hypnotically menacing glares, Medusa and her Gorgon counterparts have been perennial symbols of dread and fascination.

Over the centuries, artistic renditions of these mythical figures, ranging from paintings to sculptures, have been conceived and revered as protective talismans, safeguarding individuals, possessions, and sacred spaces from malevolent forces. The presence of Medusa's head within the cistern is believed to emanate a protective aura, a concept reminiscent of the evil eye beads in Turkish culture that are thought to ward off misfortune and malevolent glares.

A Tale of Love and Jealousy: The legend paints Medusa as a maiden of unparalleled beauty, possessing entrancing black eyes, cascading waves of hair, and a figure sculpted by the gods themselves. This mesmerizing beauty captivated the heart of none other than Perseus, the divine son of Zeus. However, love’s landscape was marred by the shadows of rivalry, as the goddess Athena, ensnared by her affections for Perseus and green tendrils of jealousy towards Medusa, cursed the beautiful maiden. In the wake of Athena’s curse, Medusa’s glorious hair transformed into writhing serpents, and her gaze acquired the dreaded power to petrify.

Perseus, armed with stealth and valor, eventually severed Medusa’s cursed head, employing its petrifying gaze as a weapon against his formidable foes.

Byzantine Integration of the Medusa Myth: During the Byzantine era, images of Medusa’s head were intricately etched onto sword hilts, serving as symbols of power and protection. Within the shadowed confines of the Basilica Cistern, the Heads of Medusa are strategically positioned upside down upon column bases. This deliberate orientation was believed to neutralize the petrifying effects of Medusa's gaze, preventing it from ensnaring the unsuspecting visitor in a web of eternal stone. The sculptor who immortalized Medusa within the cistern executed the task with meticulous precision, presenting Medusa in three distinct positions, each subtly altered to interact uniquely with the interplay of light and shadow within the cistern’s depths.


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