Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Sarayi)

The “Sunken Palace” is one of the most striking remnants of Byzantine Constantinople and is the largest of hundreds of ancient underground reservoirs in Istanbul.

While the minarets and domes that stretch across the Istanbul skyline are certainly captivating and immense, the Basilica Cistern, or Yerebatan Sarayi in Turkish, is proof that there is much to be discovered below the foundations of the great city as well. In Istanbul, hundreds of dark Byzantine cisterns remain in place from the olden days of Constantinople. None of these is grander, or better known, than the Basilica Cistern. On a hot summer’s day, this “Sunken Palace” is a great place to cool off .

Built by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian in the sixth century, the Basilica Cistern was used to store water for the Great Palace. Later on it was more or less forgotten by the city for a time until its grandeur was rediscovered in the 16th century. After been used by locals as a place to dump rubbish and even corpses, the cistern found a new purpose as a water supply for Topkapi Palace.

Listen to atmospheric music and follow the mood lighting while strolling over the raised walkways, installed in the 1990s to offer a clearer view of the dark depths below. There is even a café selling refreshments and Turkish-style tea.

While the cistern now seems rather distant from its original purpose and design, it remains a truly remarkable feat of engineering. The scale itself is impressive, with 336 marble columns set over a space of nearly 2.4 acres (nearly 1 hectare). Once the cistern held over 21 million gallons (80 million liters) of water that was pumped through more than 12 miles (19 kilometers) of aqueducts. See if you can find the columns with the upturned Medusa heads, in the back on the northwest side.

A visit to the Basilica Cistern on Sultanahmet Square in the Old City is a chance to explore something different from the palaces, mosques and bazaars that tend to dominate the Istanbul itinerary. Visits typically last no more than an hour. The cistern is open daily and foreigners pay an entrance fee. A tram stop is nearby.

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