Besides hundreds of underground cisterns placed under Istanbul area, the Basilica Cistern is the biggest one. Built by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian l in the 6th century the cistern provided a water filtration system for the Great Palace of Constantinople and other buildings. Due to great location just beside Hagia Sophia and its magnitude, this impressive monument is visible now as one of main attraction for those who visit a historical part of the city.
To construct such an ‘underground palace’ it was needed to involve 7 000 slaves putting up 4m-thick firebrick walls that could store even 100 000 tons of water finally. It is worth mentioning that cistern’s water came from the Belgrade Forest, which lies 19 kilometres (!) north of the city travelling through the 971m long Valens Aqueduct and the 115.45 metres long Mağlova Aqueduct. Anyway, believe me – all this things seem to be only trivial titbits which fade when you go in that dark basement.
Going down into the darkness, using stone stairs it’s clear that you’re stepping down into an another world where time itself seems to stand. There is only thin water layer left, but that’s enough for enormous fish-beasts to swim around in, being one of the main actors of that stage. The water creates an amazing atmosphere of that place reflecting both the rounded arches of the roof and the 336 columns arranged in a symmetrical 12×28 grid. Moreover, for architecture lovers the space is brilliant to experience many columns styles – from completely unadorned through Doric to Corinthian floral designs, also made by using different materials and techniques. We can observe that history summary because of phenomenon of spoliation – the majority of the columns in the cistern appear to have been recycled from the ruins of older buildings.
The significant attractions of the Basilica Cistern are overturned Medusa heads being the base of two columns have set in the far back corner. It was not easy to find them but couple of minutes destined to follow groups or just trying to reach the farthest point where pathways lead off worked well. One of heads is fully upside-down, while the other has been turned onto its side. The origin of them is unknown but it is believed that they were placed there for protection — Medusa has often been used as a talisman against evil— and have been overturned to counteract the horrible power of her glance.
It is no wonder that the cistern was used as a location for the 1963 James Bond film From Russia with Love as it’s survived the ages in such remarkable form. I and my friend had an extraordinary time there and, although a regular tour doesn’t need more than twenty minutes, we stayed for almost an hour to drink atmosphere in. For the better experience, my advice is to arrive early morning or at regular working day to avoid a crowd. Even though we weren’t able to experience the magic cistern mood in silence, it seems to be a great excuse to visit that place again in the near future.