This remnant of the Roman Empire is the largest ancient cistern beneath the city of Istanbul and an extraordinary demonstration of the might of the Roman Empire and sophistication of Roman infrastructure.
For those interested in media, the cistern featured in the James Bond film, From Russia With Love, and in the video game Assassins Creed: Revelations.
About the Basilica Cistern
Located just a short walk from the famous Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, the Basilica Cistern is accessible by a modest entrance that leads down rather a lot of steps, 52 to be precise, to the underground cistern. When we visited, the architecture, or perhaps engineering, of the cistern was a fascinating change from that of the many mosques of Istanbul – undoubtedly one of the highlights of the city.
Built by the Byzantine emperor Justinian I in the 6th century, the cistern has the capacity to store about 100,000 tonnes of water. To allow for visitors there is now very little water kept in the cistern and a raised wooden platform has been built to create an accessible perimeter route. While the size of the cistern is remarkable, it is the forest of columns set on a regular grid that holds real interest, both architecturally and historically.
Supported by 336 columns, arranged in 12 rows of 28 columns and spaced 4.9m apart, the roof of the cistern is constructed of round arches and cross-shaped vaults – both common construction methods in Roman architecture. This forest of columns extends to enclose a space of about 138m by 65m, with the columns reaching 9m high. There is no regularity in the making of these columns however, most of them are recycled from other parts of the then crumbling Roman Empire – something known as spoilation. This gives the columns a particular interest historically. As the Roman Empire faded, ruined monuments were not rebuilt and instead were dismantled to support the centre of what remained – Constantinople. While the Basilica Cistern is very much a demonstration of the might of Roman engineering, it is also an exhibition of the deconstruction of what was once the most powerful force in the world. A fascinating paradox.
Looking at the columns of the cistern in more detail, they are primarily of the Corinthian and Ionic order with only a few Doric capitals. Made from marble and granite, this attention to detail is obviously explained by the fact that for the most part they were designed as a display of the power of Rome for important buildings throughout the empire. At the very back of the cistern there are two Medusa heads, each supporting a column. The origins of these medusa carvings are unknown and it is unknown if they were originally made as pedestals for columns. The form and expression of them would suggest otherwise to me, it does not easily sit within the tradition of Roman Classicism to carve pedestals either at that scale or emblazoned with the Medusa… but then again, I might wrong.
Visiting Details: Basilica Cistern
There is a small charge to visit the Basilica Cistern. This is not a religious building so there is no dress code.