Things to do in Istanbul

Highlights of Istanbul’s “Sunken Palace” Basilica Cistern

Last Updated:

The Basilica Cistern, also known as the "Sunken Palace," is a stunning example of Byzantine engineering located in Istanbul, Turkey. Built in the 6th century during the reign of Emperor Justinian I, this underground cistern was designed to store and provide water for the city. The cistern's impressive architecture features a vast space supported by 336 marble columns, each measuring 9 meters in height. The dimly lit interior creates a mysterious and captivating atmosphere. Let's look at some of the highlights of the Basilica Cistern that make this ancient wonder a must-visit destination for history and architecture enthusiasts.

Recommended tickets to Basilica Cistern

Highlights of Basilica Cistern

1. Medusa’s Heads

Disney world

One of the most intriguing features of the Basilica Cistern is the presence of two of Medusa’s heads, carved into the base of two columns. These heads, one positioned upside down and the other sideways, are believed to have been repurposed from an earlier temple. The exact reason for their placement remains a mystery, but it is thought to be either for protection or simply as a practical building material. According to legend, Medusa was a beautiful maiden cursed by Athena, transforming her into a monster with snakes for hair and a gaze that could turn anyone to stone. The positioning of the heads in the cistern has led to various interpretations, with some suggesting they were placed to ward off evil spirits.

2. The Weeping Column

Disney world

Another notable highlight is the "Weeping Column," also known as the Column of Tears that stands out from the others due to the unique teardrop-like patterns carved into its surface. The origins and significance of these carvings remain a topic of debate among scholars. Some believe they symbolize the tears of the slaves who constructed the cistern, while others attribute them to the column's structural purpose of absorbing moisture to prevent deterioration.

3. The Cistern's Acoustics

Disney world

The Basilica Cistern is renowned for its exceptional acoustics, which create a serene and almost ethereal atmosphere. You’ll hear the sound of dripping water that echoes throughout the chamber, creating a meditative ambiance. This phenomenon is largely due to the cistern's architecture, featuring 336 columns supporting a series of arches that form a roof overhead. When you are inside, you will often hear whispering or speaking in hushed tones, as the acoustics amplify even the slightest sounds. From experience, it’s a little bit eerie!

4. Reflective waters

Disney world

The still, reflective waters of the cistern add to its enchanting atmosphere. The shallow pool, which once held up to 80,000 cubic meters of water, now serves as a mirror, reflecting the stunning architecture and creating a mesmerizing visual effect. You can walk along the raised wooden platforms to explore the cistern and admire the reflections from different angles.

5. Stone Staircase

Disney world

The stone staircase leading down to the cistern is another highlight, adding to the sense of descending into a hidden world. The 52 stone steps, worn smooth by centuries of use, transport you from the bustling streets above to the mysterious atmosphere below. As you descend, the temperature drops, and the humidity rises, creating a unique microclimate within the cistern.

Basilica Cistern Highlights
Park Guell Guide