Exploring the Basilica Cistern in Underground Istanbul

Updated January 2023

Roman Emperor Justinian was a busy man. He directed the building of Hagia Sofia, hiring two renowned architects, 1000 master craftsman and 10,000 workers to get the job done. He ordered the renovations to the Chora Church (see upcoming blog post), the hippodrome and had the underground cistern built in 532 AD. The Istanbul facility has the capacity of 100,000 tons of water storage.

The Million Stone
The Stone of Million, starting point for all roads leading to Constantinople.

The Basilica Cistern entrance rests next to the Stone of Million, the ruins of a marker used as the starting point for all roads leading to Constantinople (Istanbul’s former name).  It’s fun to look at the various destinations and distances on a modern signpost next to the ancient stone.

Which way to go? Marker near the Million Stone.
Which way to go?

To see the Cistern, you descend 55 steps to a deck overlooking the dimly lit water arena. The site includes columns and capitals from earlier monuments including 336 marble columns to support the roof. The columns stand in 12 rows with 26 columns in each row. The walls, arches, and floors are brick and emit a soft reddish glow from the strategically placed ambient lighting. As you continue down, soft classical music fills the air producing a calming vibe.

Cistern entrance
Cistern entrance

Proceed onward until you reach wooden platforms that were erected over the water. Look closely and you’ll see fish swimming, but otherwise the water remains flat and serene.  The “Underground Palace” gives a Zen feel, especially surprising since one of the busiest intersections lies directly above. I would never have toured or expected a cistern to become one of my fondest memories of Istanbul, except for the favorable reviews. For a busy tourist, the cistern becomes a real oasis.

My initial view of the underground cistern.
First view of the Basilica Cistern.

In one corner I found a booth with costumes and photographers and couldn’t resist letting my inner child play. I dressed as a harem woman and had my photo taken.

Dressing up in a Harem costume.
Costume Fun

Judy and I enjoyed inspecting the differences in the marble columns and capitals. We found the weeping column, the only one that drips. The unexpected highlight is two sculpted carvings of Medusa:  one facing sideways and the other upside down.  They almost look like they are carved from jade, shimmering with lovely greenish hues.

Medusa's head lying on its side.
The Side lying Medusa
The green upside down Medusa.

The Basilica Cistern self-tour takes just 30-40 minutes but is a place I will forever remember.  By all means, don’t miss it if you visit Istanbul.

The beautiful aura of the dimly lit Cistern.


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One thought on “Exploring the Basilica Cistern in Underground Istanbul

  1. So glad you went to the cistern. There is so much to see in Istanbul that most visitors miss it but it is one of my faves for the same reasons you liked it. Love seeing my favorite country through your eyes.

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