Newest Review: ... in temperature; it's very chilly in the Cistern, relative to the outside temperature. The next thing is the sheer impressiveness of t... more
See the Cisterns.
Basilica Cistern (Istanbul, Turkey)
Member Name: Essexgirl2006
Basilica Cistern (Istanbul, Turkey)
Advantages: Good value place to visit, nice and cool
Disadvantages: Not much to see
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
Summary: the underground cisterns in Istanbul