The Basilica Cistern

Basilica Cistern, Istanbul – An Underground Tourist Attraction

The Byzantine Cistern, commissioned by Emperor Justinian, built-in 532, is Istanbul’s largest vertical subterranean structure. Also known as the Underground Palace as referred to by the Ottomans, Basilica Cistern is a spectacle that cannot be ignored.
The cistern is serving as a museum now. It has been the attention seekers of many thriller novels like ‘From Russia with Love (1963)’ where James Bond can be seen rowing through the Cistern waters or Dan Brown’s thriller novel ‘Inferno (2013)’ which features famous fictional symbologist Robert Langdon.
Yerebatan Saray (In Turkish means an underground palace) is another name by which the locals address Basilica Cistern. It is one of the most mystical buildings tourists frequently visit in Istanbul, Turkey.

Basilica Cistern – The Story

Here are some note-worthy Basilica Cistern facts about the history and architecture of the cistern.

·      History

The name of this subterranean Cistern is Basilica because it is situated under the First Hill of Constantinople, the Stoa Basilica, which currently serves as a public square. The Cistern was built between the 3rd and 4th centuries in the Early Roman Age as an artistic center. This was before the reconstruction was performed on the Cistern structure after a fire in 476.

The primary purpose for building the Cistern was to store water for the Great Palace during the Byzantine rule, which continued to provide a water supply to the Topkapi Palace after the Ottomans’ conquest in 1453.

Though the Cistern started being built in the 3rd century by Emperor Constantine, it was only enlarged and reached its current stature in 532. With the numerous historical texts found across history, it is claimed that 7,000 enslaved people were involved in the complete construction of Basilica Cistern.

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Yerebatan Saray
Yerebatan Saray

·      Architecture

Arranged in 12 rows and 38 columns, the cistern is built on 336 marble columns, each 30 feet high. The cistern has been salvaged through history and has reached its current grandeur as the most significant surviving Byzantine structure. The cistern covers a rectangular area of 9,800 square meters which is 140 meters long and 70 meters wide.

The structure can store up to 80,000 cubic meters of water where the water comes from the Eğrikapı Water Distribution Center in the Belgrade Forest. The Basilica descends through 52 stone steps into the central cistern, surrounded by a firebrick wall with a thickness of 13 feet.

Since its construction, the cistern has been subjected to numerous renovations and reconstructions, which hardly changed the structure but mainly focused on clearing the cistern from mud and other substances.

·      Interior

Basilica Cistern is designed with a unique and elegant composition that gives a quiet and peaceful atmosphere. The columns of the cistern are made with the finest marbles, including the two famous attractions of the cistern – The medusa Heads.

The Medusa Heads are the two elegantly structured bases of the columns made with several types of marbles. The main reason for the Medusa Heads gaining popularity is that there is no history of their construction in the cistern. Most importantly, both the Medusa Heads are not upright, which raises more confusion about their presence under the columns.

Basilica Cistern – The Tour

·      Visiting Hours

The Basilica Cistern’s opening hours are from 9 AM to 6 PM. However, the cistern may open for private exhibitions and other events for the later part of the day as well. As being in a Muslim country, the cistern observes different time schedules for the first day of Ramadan and the Festive event of Eid-ul-Adha (Turkish Holidays).

·      Tours

The Basilica Cistern is easily accessible for persons with wheelchairs, and they also get free entry into the cistern along with one attendant. The sight-seeing platform is accessible through an elevator which gives a complete view of the cistern in all its glory.

Besides the average ticket for entry into the cistern, you can also get a guided tour which will be highly beneficial if you are interested in the history of the cistern. There is another option to get the tickets for the tour along with other tourist locations like Hagia Sophia and Topkapi Palace. If you opt to buy a combo ticket for these places, it will cost you less and allow you to visit two or three locations on a single day.

Yerebatan Saray Medusa
Fish Yerebatan Saray

·      Entry Fees

The entry fee for the cistern is 30 TL which is around $2 with a guided tour. You can get Basilica Cistern tickets from the ticket window on the location; however, due to the tremendous tourist attraction, getting in line to get a ticket may cost you 30 minutes at a minimum.

To get access to the cistern and avoid getting in line for the tickets, you can always opt for getting the tickets via online websites. This will save you some time besides giving you instant access to behold the beauty of the cistern.

Why is Basilica Cistern closed? The News circulated on the internet that the cistern is closed. It may cause massive disappointment for tourists to travel to the cistern only to find it closed. However, the Basilica Cistern has been reopened after the renovation and regularly caters to tourists.

·      How to Get There

There is a unique meeting point for the guided tour of the Basilica at the main bus stop of Big Bus Tour Company situated at Sultanahmet Square. It is present near the front of the Hagia Sophia Museum.


If you are looking for a unique place to visit in Istanbul, Basilica Cistern is the place for you. The cistern is situated around 150 meters apart from the Hagia Sophia Museum in Istanbul. The cistern started building in the 3rd century and was renovated several times throughout its history.

Basilica Cistern was renovated by the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality in 1985 and opened to the public in 1987, which later served as the central public and tourist attraction in Istanbul, Turkey.

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Yerebatan Saray underground