Basilica Cistern: The Palace Beneath Istanbul

Far below the city streets of Istanbul lies the largest of the ancient cisterns, Basilica Cistern, or Yerebatan Sarayi, the “Sunken Palace”. This immense cistern was built during the heyday of the Roman Empire and Constantinople. Visitors can easily arrange a visit below the old city to this surreal underground treasure.

A Jewel Below Your Feet

The Basilica Cistern is a wonder of ancient Roman architecture that can only be glimpsed below the streets of modern Istanbul. The Basilica Cistern is an awe-inspiring cistern, one of several hundred such structures, built during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian during the 6th century. The ancient cisterns provided a water filtration system for buildings throughout the ancient city and were used throughout the Ottoman Conquest and even today. The Basilica Cistern provided water for the Great Palace of Constantinople and other structures on First Hill.

Visitors can expect an underground chamber approximately 138 meters by 64.6 meters and capable of containing 80,000 cubic meters of water. 336 marble columns support the ceiling of the structure and the weight of the city above. Each column is 9 meters high and capped with capitals of Ionic, Corinthian and Doric styles. Engravings can be spied such as the relief of a Hen’s Eye, tears and slated branches, reminiscent of the columns of the Triumphal Arch of Theodosius. Some texts suggest that the tears pay tribute to the slaves that died during construction. Elements of columns seem to have come from previous buildings, a common practice during that period. Look for the two Medusa visages of unknown origin at the base of two of the columns. After restorations throughout the ages, the cistern was made available to the public on September 9th, 1987.

Plan Your Trip

Visitors walk down a series of stone steps to enter the cistern. Plan to spend 1-2 hours at the site with opening times that vary. Visit the Basilica Cistern seven days a week with winter opening hours of 9am to 5:30pm and from 9am to 6:30pm during the summer. There are a few holiday exceptions, as noted on their website. The entrance fee is 20 TL for tickets and be informed that this institution is not affiliated with the Ministry of Culture and any Museum Cards are not valid at this site. To contact staff directly, call +0 212 512 15 70 and stay abreast of any changes with a visit to their website.

The Basilica Cistern is must-see stop for all visitors to Istanbul. Being underground, it can be enjoyed during any season or weather conditions and offers a striking perspective that takes all back to the days of the Roman Empire. The Basilica Cistern also operates as a museum and hosts national and international events and concerts. See the source of the iconic images of the cistern in the 1963 classic James Bond film, From Russia with Love, and the column with its inverted Medusa pillar in the Dan Brown novel, Inferno. Only fifty-two stone steps take visitors down into a world below, the historical Basilica Cistern.


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