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Basilica Cistern
Basilica Cistern

Basilica Cistern

One of the most marvelous historical structures of Istanbul is the Cistern Basilica, located at the southwest of St. Sophia. Built by Emperor Justinian (527-565) the seemingly countless columns rising from the water of this underground cistern have given it the name “Underground Palace.”

In the era of the “Young Rome,” probably in the 3rd or 4th century, there was a big Basilica where the cistern is now, used as a trade and law center and for science and art projects. Apparently there was a marble statue of the Basilica, which was completely destroyed by fire in 476, rebuilt by Ilius, again, suffered a fire disaster, and withered under the Nika rebellion.

The Temple of Solomon, built in Jerusalem by the ruler of Israel, Basilius I (867-886), was known as the most beautiful, most magnificent place of worship in the world until St. Sophia was constructed. It is said that Basilius had the sculpture of the Basilica melted down and his own statue put in its place. After the fire of522 Emperor Justinian, using the labor of 7000 slaves, had a cistern built. The name of the cistern came from the nearby Basilica of Ilius. The water for the cistern was brought from the Belgrade Forest, 19 kilometers away from the city, by means of aqueducts constructed by the Emperor Valens in 386, and added to by the Emperor Justinianus.

The plan for the cistern was extracted by German seamen in the beginning of the 20th century. According to this plan, it was a giant rectangidar construction, 140 meters long, 70 meters wide. Reached by 52 stone steps down, the cistern contains 336 columns, each nine meters tall. There are 12 rows of 28 columns each, 480 meters apart. Rising up from the water like a vast forest, the columns affect visitors at first sight. The weight of the cistern roof is shifted to the columns by vaults and circular arches. Most of the columns were taken from older constructions made of various types of marble, chiseled granite. The majority of them are of a single piece of stone; some are two pieces on top of each other. The capitals of these columns are special: 98 of them are Corinthian-style and, some are Doric-style. The 4.80m thick walls of the cistern are of bonded brick. The brick floor has been plastered with mortar to keep the water from leaking. In total, the area of the cistern is 9800nr, and it can hold approximately 100,000 tons of water. The columns are either pointed or fluted, most are cylindrical. There are various repeated motifs embossed or inlaid on the columns. They resemble the remains of a Byzantine-era ruin in today’s Beyazit Square, which is said to have been a part of the Great Theodesius’s (379-395) victory columns.

In the northwest corner under two columns there are two Medusa heads from Roman times, which are used as a base, or pedestal. It is thought the 4th century heads were taken from a “Young Rome” era ancient structure and brought here. There is no written evidence as to why they were used as bases, but most researchers agree that it was only because they were needed during the construction. However, Medusa was one of the Gorgons, three female monsters of the underworld in Greek mythology. Among the three sisters, only snake-haired Medusa had positive influence. She had the power to turn into stone whoever looked at her. In that era drawings or sculptures of Gorgon heads were put into big structures or special places to protect the places from evil For this reason the head of Medusa may have been placed inside the cistern.

The Basilica Cistern has undergone many repairs since its construction. The first restoration under the Ottoman Empire was in the 18th century at the time of Ahmet III (1723) by architect Mehmet Aga from Kayseri. The second big repair was ordered by Sultan Abdulhamit II (1876-1909). Two columns toward the middle in front of the northeast wall were in danger of falling during a construction in the years 1955-1960. Left in a dangerous, desperate condition, each of them was overlaid with a coating of cement, thus ruining their old unique appearance.

During Byzantine times the cistern had provided water for the large area of the imperial palace and the district around it. After the conquest of 1453, for a time it was used to water the gardens of Topkapi Palace. Later, the Ottomans made their own water supply system and the cistern was no longer used. The cistern was unknown to Westerners until the middle of the 16th century at which time a Dutch traveler named P. Gyllins came to Istanbul to research Byzantine remains. He discovered the cistern and made it known to the Western world.

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