The Sunken Palace

Hagia Sophia, Topkapi, the blue Mosque. These are the most important (among many others) sights in the Sultanhmet area of Constantinople. But below them a hidden marvel exists : The Basilica Cistern, a huge water reservoir built by the Byzantines, forgotten for centuries, rediscovered by a French and later restored and turned to a tourist attraction

Getting down from the entrance above
Getting down from the entrance above

It is a huge water reservoir, just 150m Hagia Sophia. It was built by empreror Justinian I in order to supply with water the Great Palace and other areas of Constantinople especially in case of a siege. Later it was closed by Byzantinians, forgotten by the Ottomans, rediscovered in 1545 by a French traveler, used as a rubish dump and much later, in the late 20th century restored

The Byzantine name, Basilica Cistern derives from a basilica hall that initially was on top of the cistern. The Turkish name is Yerabatan Sarai which means Sunken Palace.

A View of the forest of columns
A View of the forest of columns

The roof is supported in a forest of columns, most of them ancient Greek style. Most of them were recycled from older buildings and ruins in the city. The whole setting is INCREDIBLE. You get down from the busy historic city centre and you can walk around in this tranquil area, on top of shallow water (a small amount compared to the total capacity) with the view of the subtly-lit columns. There are even fish swimming in the shallow water. The place is NOT small – it is the size of a cathedral. Those Byzantinians wanted to be stocked up in water in case of a siege (and there was a great number of these in the 1000+years of Byzantine rule)

Another view of the columns

ย In the NW corner two column bases use blocks carved with the image of Medusa. There is also a column engraved with hen’s eyes. These were probably reused from Roman buildings that were demolished and they carry no significant meaning. The two medusa heads are rotated, probably due to beliefs that this would negate the destructive power of the medusa gaze

The entrance is a little easy to loose, I remember I looked around and asked until I located. As it is underground, this site is often overlooked by tourists that are drawn to the above ground monuments. However it should be a mast for any visitor, in my oppinion the best along with Hagia Sophia

Fish can still be found swimming.

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