In the Depths of History
The Basilica Cistern Museum is one of the most important cultural assets where we can trace the traces of glorious Istanbul history. This grand underground cistern, built by Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian I (527-565), is nicknamed “Yerebatan Sarayı” (Sunken Palace) among the public due to its numerous marble columns rising from the water. It is also known as “Bazilika Sarnıcı” (Basilica Cistern) by some, as it was built on the site of the former Stoa Basilica, which was a basilica.
With its 80,000-ton water storage capacity, Yerebatan Cistern is the largest covered cistern in the city and stands out with more reclaimed supporting elements compared to other covered cisterns. Covering an area of approximately 10,000 square meters, this colossal structure has a rectangular shape with a length of 140 meters and a width of 70 meters.
According to written sources, the cistern used to distribute water from waterways and rain to the Great Palace, where the emperors resided, and the surrounding buildings, meeting the city’s water needs for hundreds of years. It also received water from one of the historical aqueducts called the Hadrianus Aqueduct.
Inside the cistern, there are 336 columns, each measuring 9 meters in height. These columns are erected at 4.80-meter intervals, forming 12 rows, each containing 28 columns. Carved from various types of marble, most of the columns consist of a single piece, while some are composed of two parts.
The capitals of the columns exhibit different features. Some reflect the “Corinthian” style, while others stand out with plain, unadorned capitals. Except for a few of the columns with angular or fluted shapes, most of them are observed to be cylindrical.
The cistern’s 4.80-meter-thick walls made of bricks and its brick-paved floor are rendered impermeable by a thick layer of mortar made from “Horasan” lime.
After the conquest of Istanbul in 1453, the historical cistern continued to be used for the needs of Topkapı Palace for a while and later became known to be used by the public as the area started to urbanize gradually.
In the 16th century, the structure was “unnoticed” by Westerners until it was “rediscovered.” Between 1544 and 1555, the French naturalist and topography expert Petrus Gyllius, who lived in Istanbul, appears as the person who made this discovery. Gyllius was the first to measure the cistern’s dimensions and according to him, it was 336 feet long, 182 feet wide, and its circumference was 224 Roman steps. He also counted the columns and recorded that there were exactly 336 of them, as well as mentioning the existence of several wells on the top of the cistern. Gyllius’ statements about how people drew water with buckets, rowed boats, and used lamps for illumination inside the cistern, with air and light seeping through the wells, show that the locals were “aware” of the cistern at that time and this information has been passed down to the future.
In the Ottoman period, the Yerebatan Cistern underwent its first restoration during the reign of Sultan Ahmed III, and the second restoration during the reign of Sultan Abdulhamid II. In the following years, it continued to undergo various restoration efforts. Between 1955 and 1960, nine columns under the risk of collapse were covered with a thick layer of concrete to prevent further deterioration. In 1985-1987, during a comprehensive restoration and cleaning project carried out by the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality, the iconic blocks with Medusa heads were discovered, which are one of the most significant symbols of Yerebatan Cistern. The Medusa heads, used as column bases, are positioned horizontally in the western part and upside down in the eastern part of the structure. These Medusa heads, considered one of the most exceptional examples of Roman sculpture, have attracted great attention from visitors and have become the subject of many legends.
Following the restoration in 1987, the magnificent structure was opened to the public as a museum with the addition of a platform for visitors. Over time, it has hosted various national and international events.
This mysterious place, which has become an integral part of Istanbul sightseeing programs, has been visited by many prominent figures, including former U.S. President Bill Clinton, former Dutch Prime Minister Wim Kok, former Italian Foreign Minister Lamberto Dini, former Swedish Prime Minister Göran Persson, and former Austrian Prime Minister Thomas Klestil. With the most extensive restoration of its history realized by the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality (IBB) Miras, Yerebatan Cistern Museum was reopened to visitors on July 22, 2022, to witness many more centuries. The museum, which hosts temporary exhibitions, contemporary art performances, cultural and artistic events, aims to create a universe for the future of art with its deep memory, continuing its journey with the new generation of museology, under the auspices of Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality’s Culture Inc.