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Basilica Cistern - Sunken Palace Istanbul

  • Written by Website Editor
Basilika Zisterne

The sunken place in Istanbul has a story which is told over the sounds of water. One of the charming constructions left from the Byzantine era is the Basilica Cistern located at Sultanahmet Square in old Istanbul across the street from Hagia Sophia.

The city of old Istanbul had always needed permanent water supplies. As a result of that, many underground cisterns were constructed during the time of the Byzantine Empire (527–565). The greatest of them is the Basilica Cistern which was dug and built probably after 542 by Emperor Justinian 1st. The public began to call the ornate cistern the “Sunken Palace” because of the great number of marble columns rising out of the water. The Underground Cistern which covered this large area provided water to the enormous palace where the emperors lived. After the conquest of Istanbul by Fatih Sultan Mehmet in 1453 the gardens of the Topkapi Palace were irrigated with water from the cistern.
One of the 336 marble columns has some figures on it which look like tears. According to a story about the figures in the form of tears, it was erected to the memory of the many slaves who died during its construction. This column has, since then, told their tragedy over the centuries.


In a far corner of the cistern you will find two Medusa heads which were used upside down and sideways, supporting two of the columns. Why one of the heads is upside down and the other one sideways is a question of orientation. It is thought that they were taken from an antique building dating from the Young Roman Age.

The Basilica Cistern was cleaned and renovated and then a wooden walkway was built between the columns by the Istanbul Municipality in 1985–1988.

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