Culture & Travel

12 November 2020
Basilica Cistern and its Legend

This week, we will visit the Basilica Cistern greeting us in Sultanahmet with all its glory of thousands of years. Let us first explain what a cistern is for those who don’t know. Cisterns are underwater receptacles for holding liquids often built to catch and store rainwater. The Basilica Cistern was built during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I as a water reserve precaution against seiges. 

It is the largest cistern in Istanbul with a capacity of 100,000 tons of water. It measures 110 meters long and 70 meters wide. Basilica Cistern is located in the heart of Sultanahmet, just a couple of minutes’ walk from Hagia Sophia. It stands tall at 9 meters on the inside since the year 565 with its 336 magnificent columns. 

Mystery of the Columns

As you will see during your tour, some of these columns are different and have different designs than the rest. For example, the column with tear-drop shaped engravings seems to be more wet than the rest. Thus, it is called the “Weeping Column” (The Hen’s Eye Column). Ancient texts suggest that this column is a tribute to the workers who died during the construction of the Basilica Cistern.

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Legend of the Medusa Head Pillars

Another legend in the Basilica Cistern is the upside-down Medusa pillars. There isn’t any actual information about where the three snake-headed Medusa pillars came from but there are some legends... According to one, snake-headed Medusa has the power to turn anyone who looks at her into stone. Back in the day, they used to believe that Gorgon statues protected large structures and special locations. Thus, the Medusa head was brought to the Basilica Cistern. 

How to get there?

The easiest way is to take the Kabataş-Bağcılar tramline and get off at Sultanahmet stop. Basilica Cistern is 3 minutes on foot from the tram stop. If you are coming from the Anatolian side, take a ferry from Kadıköy to Eminönü, Kabataş or Karaköy. Then take Kabataş-Zeytinburnu or Kabataş-Bağcılar tramline, get off at Sultanahmet stop and walk for 3 minutes.