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Basilica Cistern (Istanbul, Turkey)

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2 Reviews

Address: Yerebatan Caddesi, Sultanahmet, Istanbul. Telephone: 90-212-5221259
Open daily except Mondays , 09:00-18:00

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      09.07.2013 10:22
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      the underground cisterns in Istanbul

      Before arriving in Istanbul for my spring mini-break, I knew I wanted to visit the Blue mosque, the Hagia Sophia and the Topkapi Palace. One place I hadn't considered until I spoke to someone who had been before was the Basilica cisterns. As you walk around the old part of the city, beneath your feet are hundreds of ancient cisterns, and these ones are the largest. They are situated just around the corner from the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque and the Sultanahmet tram stop.

      The cistern was constructed in the 6th Century by Emperor Justinian (who also built the Hagia Sophia) and served the royal palace. It was so named because there had originally been a basilica on this site (you could probably fit one in it too). You pay your TL10 at the entrance (this is about £4) and go down the steps into the cistern. At the bottom you can hire an audio guide for TL3 (£1.20). I decided to do this as it was quite dark and you cannot see much, so a guide book won't help you unless you have a torch. Be aware that to hire an audio guide you need to hand over some ID as security such as your hotel key or a credit card. It is cool down here, which in March made very little difference, but if you are coming in the summer you will notice it more. It is likely to be pleasant at first, but you may wish to have a light jacket if you plan on staying down here.

      The cistern contains 336 marble columns, each 9 metres high and equally spaced apart in twelve rows. The tops of the columns were often slightly different, and generally seemed to be in good condition considering they were 1500 years old (I believe some renovation work was done in the 1980s). As I said, it is quite dark here, but the audio tour is sensitive to where you are standing, so tells you relevant info, so you don't need to fiddle with any buttons. There are a few boards with signage up which are lit, plus you can try on traditional costumes for photo opportunities if you are so inclined. The audio tour was quite informative and told you information in a few long chunks. I would have preferred this to have been broken up more as I would get distracted taking photos and find I'd missed something that sounded interesting. There is only a little bit of water in here now, which some fish swim in. However there is some condensation so the columns and ceiling drip occasionally making the wooden footbridges a bit damp and slippery in places so you will need to watch your footing.

      Highlights of the experience include the 'peacock eyes' column which has a peacock feather design carved into it to represent the tears of the slaves who built the cistern. Towards the back there are two Medusa heads. Legend has it that to look at Medusa and her hair of snakes would turn you to stone. Maybe this is why the heads are either on their side or upside down. Either that or they worked better that way.

      Photography tip: It is very dark here and the low lights by the columns look very atmospheric but don't show up in a photograph. If you use a flash you will lose the atmosphere and effect, so I recommend bringing a tripod/monopod or gorillapod (there are rails to attach it to) and a camera where you can adjust the exposure time. The reflection of the low lights in the water is very effective, and it would be nice to capture.

      There is a small café here selling drinks and snacks.

      All in all we were down here about 30-40 minutes, allow more if you wish to stay for a drink or try the costumes on. Note that when you exit, you will be around the corner (to the right) from where you went in.

      At the reasonable price I think this is worth a visit as you are likely to be in the area anyway

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      • More +
        25.06.2001 05:52
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        The Basilica Cistern in Istanbul is certainly one of the oddest tourist attractions in the world. If you've seen a film set in Istanbul, then it's pretty likely you've seen the Basilica Cistern. It was featured in 'From Russia With Love' when Bond got into a boat to sail across the water-filled underground vault, and again in Jackie Chan's recent Hong Kong-funded action film 'The Accidental Spy' where Chan was attacked by bad guys on one of the walkways. HISTORY The Cistern was constructed in the Byzantine period of Istanbul's history. During Emperor Justinian's rule of the city in 532 AD, this underground vault was laid out to meet his Great Palace's ever-increasing demand for water. The Cistern lay undiscovered for about a century after the Ottoman conquest of the city in 1453, and was rediscovered when local inhabitants were discovered to be lowering buckets from their basements into the vault to retrieve water, and even fish! In the 19th century, a third of the structure was bricked off, and in 1988, the Cistern was drained, cleaned and restored, so that it could be opened to the public. VISITING THE CISTERN You enter the cistern through a pretty nondescript-looking small building at the Eastern end of Yerebatan Caddesi, which looks something like a public convenience. After buying your ticket, you head down the stairs into the Cistern itself. The first thing that hits you is the drop in temperature; it's very chilly in the Cistern, relative to the outside temperature. The next thing is the sheer impressiveness of the place. As you walk down the stairs, the vault opens up before you, with an army of identical looking columns holding up the arched ceiling. Some 336 columns hold up the cistern's roof, each of them over eight metres high. The lighting is subdued, but adequate to illuminate the whole vault, and give you an idea of just how big it is. M
        ost of the lighting is white, revealing the yellow stone work of the supporting columns, the dark red brick ceiling, and patches of green algae on the walls and columns. However, in one far corner of the vault, seemingly randomly coloured lights flick on and off at intervals, turning columns pink, blue and green. You walk around the cistern on wide wooden walkways, crossing the vault a few feet above the surface of the water, which is about a foot and a half deep. If you look down into the water as you walk around, you see fish swimming about in the Cistern, which vary in size enormously – up to some real giants! At one time, I have read in other people's accounts of visits to the Cistern, you walked around to the accompaniment of loud, blaring opera music. Fortunately, the Turkish tourist authorities seem to have bowed to public outcry in this regard, and turned the volume down. When I visited, muted Mussorgsky was playing throughout, which was nothing like as distracting as guidebooks' accounts of the Cistern had led me to expect. Some of the columns used in the Cistern's manufacture have been obviously borrowed from elsewhere. Most notable are the so-called "tear" columns, which bear a tear-drop like design, and the two Medusa columns. The Medusa columns are at the far end of the Cistern from the entrance, and are obviously different from most of the columns used in the Cistern's construction. The small area of the Cistern in which the Medusa columns can be found has been drained of water, so that you can see the bases from which they take their name – one of the Medusa column bases consists of an inverted Medusa head, the other has one resting on its side. These stone Medusa heads are thought to have been taken from an earlier structure – a nymphaeum; a shrine to water nymphs. Near the entrance and exit of the Basilica Cistern, a local artist has provided some ceramic artwork, which
        sits in the water, consisting of several lines of small white ceramic towers, some of which have been coloured with touches of gold paint. It looks quite odd, but is really not out of place in such a peculiar location. On the way out of the Cistern, there is a small café, with tables and chairs protected from condensation drips falling from the ceiling by a shoddy looking sheet of tarpaulin. You leave via a staircase, which leads into a shop selling postcards, books and jewellery, which exits onto OTHER CISTERNS The Basilica Cistern is not the only such place in Istanbul – just off Divanyolu Caddesi, a little further to the West, can be found the entrance to the Cistern of 1,001 Columns. However, despite having opened a few years ago as a shopping arcade, this Cistern was no longer open to the public in 2001, when I visited the city. CONCLUSIONS Admission to the Basilica Cistern cost 4,000,000 Turkish lira in May 2001 (£2.60), which represents very good value for money for such a unique tourist attraction. The atmosphere of the place is truly amazing, and this is an absolute must-see for visitors going to Istanbul. The music is no longer as distracting and irritating as it once was, to judge from guidebooks' accounts of visits – however, peculiarly inappropriate classical music does still play continually throughout the Cistern. Guidebooks also frequently criticise the Cistern for garish lighting, however, I found the lighting of much of the Cistern to be good... apart from the one corner with flashing primary-coloured lights! The Cistern also seemed a lot less busy than many of Istanbul's tourist attractions, which also served to make it a pleasant place to visit. The nearest tram stop is Sultanahmet, which is about a minute's walk away, along Divanyolu Caddesi.

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      • Product Details

        The Basilica Cistern ,also known as the Sunken Palace, was constructed by Justinian in 532 to supply the Byzantine Palace primarily.