Basilica Cistern

The ancient basilica was built by hundreds of slaves.
The ancient basilica was built by hundreds of slaves.

This amazing cistern is the biggest of hundreds of ancient cisterns that are hidden beneath the bustling Istanbul streets. This particular cistern was built in the sixth century.

Ancient books show that the basilica, apparently built by 7000 slaves, once contained gardens and was surrounded by a colonnade. A larger structure was later rebuilt after riots in the year 532, which devastated the city and resulted in much rebuilding of property and monuments. This new improved cistern provided clean water for the Great Palace of Constantinople, and later to Topkapi Palace after the Ottoman conquest in 1453.

Standing in the basilica is like being in an underground cathedral. The huge structure is 138 metres by 64 metres in area and capable of holding 80,000 cubic metres of water. The ceiling is held up by a whopping 336 marble columns, each nine metres high.

Look out for the column with raised pictures of a hen's eye, slanted branches and tears. Scholars believe that the tears are in honour of the hundreds of slaves who died while the cistern was being built.

The basilica is located in Sultanahmet Square. At the time of writing (2012) it cost 10 lira to enter and is open from 9am to 6pm. You will need sturdy shoes as there are fifty stone steps to descend.

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