Among the oldest structures dotting the fascinating lands of Istanbul is the Basilica Cistern. Its the largest underground cistern of the Byzantine era which was constructed under an old Basilica that was located across from the legendary Hagia Sophia. The sixth-century ‘Sunken Palace’ was commissioned by the Byzantine emperor Justinian I, and is the only surviving structure from a prominent complex of Late Antique Constantinople buildings.
The Illus Basilica, or the Basilica Stoa, was constructed in the late fourth or early fifth century and gives the Basilica Cistern its name. The Basilica had been an important part of Constantinople but got burned down in 476. It was repaired by Illus, only to be destroyed again during the Nika Riots of 532. The Basilica was rebuilt, and so was a cistern below it. The religious structure lasted for a few centuries, while the underground water reservoir survives till date. The reservoir has underground marble columns, because of which it is often called ‘Yerebatan Cistern’.
Basilica Cistern's history began in 527-28 when work started on it under the reign of Justinian I. The cistern supplied filtered water to the Great Palace, which was the Byzantine imperial residence, and the First Hill royal residences. When the Byzantines shifted from the Great Palace, the Basilica Cistern was abandoned. It was after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople that Basilica Cistern's history changed, and the reservoir was put to use again.
The cistern supplied water to the Ottoman imperial residence at the Topkapi Palace. The royals, however, preferred running water and introduced other water facilities, and the Basilica Cistern was forgotten.
Basilica Cistern history notes P Gyllius, a Dutch traveller, as the one who discovered the ancient cistern in the mid-sixteenth century and introduced it to the Western world as a Byzantine-era architectural relic. The Basilica Cistern underwent numerous restorations and renovations throughout its history, twice those under the Ottomans.
The Basilica Cistern, after extensive restoration and cleaning efforts by the municipal authority of Istanbul, was opened to visitors in 1987. With its prominent location across the legendary Hagia Sophia, the largest surviving Byzantine-era cistern is one of Istanbul’s most popular attractions.
Visitors can now witness Basilica Cistern's history come alive as they walk down the 52-step stairs to enter the cathedral-sized structure. The vast vaulted ceiling is supported by 336 marble columns, many of which were recycled from ruined older buildings in the empire. Among the famous highlights are the two Medusa heads that support two columns. Visitors also get to explore historical artefacts that were discovered from the ancient cistern and are now on display.
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