Istanbul Top Pick: The Basilica Cistern

Of the many, many places to see in Istanbul, The Basilica Cistern (or Yerebatan Sarnıcı in Turkish) is my favourite.  It’s the largest of the several hundred ancient sub-terranean cisterns in Istanbul, and I absolutely love how it’s so different from all other top attractions in Istanbul.

Unlike the grand mosques with minarets that soar up to the sky and define the skyline of the city, the cistern is underground—concealed, invisible if you don’t look close enough.  And in contrast to the bright and airy royal palaces, the cistern is dark—full of shadows and whispers, even ominous in certain parts.  And although different from the other popular tourist attractions, it does not fall behind with its rich history, architectural details, and overall ability to impress:  About the size of a cathedral, the cistern has over 300 columns lit by yellow light just soft enough to encourage an overall hushed mood in the space, and bright enough to cast ghostly reflections on the water.  If you look closely, you may see families of carps ducking in and out of the shadows cast by the towering columns.  On hot summer days like when we visited, the cistern stays cool (around 10-12ºC is my guess) which is a welcome respite from the noise, the crowds, and the heat above ground.

Although the forest of columns are undeniably breathtaking, visitors should not miss the the Medusa column bases in the northeast corner of the cistern.  All columns, capitals, and bases were salvaged from different temples during the time of construction (6th century) and it is not known where the Medusa heads were originally from.  Judging from the intricacy of the carving (images below), it’s safe to say that they were from skilled hands and artistry of the Byzantine Empire.

And finally, a dorky side note: The Basilica Cistern is also a must-visit for anyone who knows Ezio Auditore and Robert Langdonyour visit will surely be a mix of awe and giddiness.

As a photographer, it’s very difficult to take photographs of the cistern without a tripod, otherwise you will need to increase your ISO and eventually ruin your photos.  Such was my fate during our visit, unfortunately.  But a few came out right, and here are five photos that I’m quite proud of:


The breathtaking forest of columns – there are over 300 in the entire cavern


The columns arranged in incredible symmetry – viewed from the side


Medusa’s head used as a column base – possibly inverted to negate the power of the Gorgons’ gaze


A closer look at the sideways Medusa’s head – such stunning detail


The most difficult shot I took – and my absolute favourite: The columns, arches, and their reflection in the water almost look like a shimmering topaz jewel

You can also see the Basilica Cistern as part of a day tour—one of the 5 Things to See & Do in Istanbul.

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