The Basilica Cistern of Istanbul and the Heads of Medusa

I walked down 55 stone steps, sensing dampness in the air when I reached the bottom and the Basilica cistern. The only sounds were whispers from tourists and the odd drip of water. A shop stand was in the far left corner and they beckoned me over.

For a small amount of Turkish lira, I could dress up as an Ottoman princess and go home with a photograph souvenir. The disapproving look on my face showed that I felt this trade to be rather tacky and unsuitable for a building that is nearly 1500 years old.

Also known as the Yerebatan Sarayi or Sunken Palace of Istanbul,  the man-made platforms took me away from the entrance and further into the cistern.

Basilica Cistern Istanbul

To my left and right were tall columns; lit with floodlights while beneath me were fish, bigger than the size of my hand, following the path in the shallow waters below. Perhaps they have learned to associate humans with food.

Basilica Cistern

Historians say that in the year 527, seven thousand slaves grafted to build the Basilica cistern covering 9800 square meters, with 336 columns and the capacity to hold 100,000 tons of water that made its way to the citizens of Constantinople.

Definitely impressive but as I have learned with historical structures in Turkey, the Ottoman empire had more interest in lathering themselves with riches  and the cistern fell into a bad state, used only by locals who dipped buckets into wells to fetch water up with the occasional fish

Fish of Yerebatan Sarayi

In the 16th century, a Dutch traveller named P.Gyllius, spread the word of the Yerebatan Sarayi to the western world which perhaps convinced the Ottoman empire they had something worth saving. Restoration work over hundreds of years has ensured that it is now one of the historical marvels of Istanbul.

But did you know that Mark Twain, James Bond, and Medusa all have a connection to the Yerebatan Sarayi?

Mark Twain

In one of the greatest books about travel “Innocents Abroad,” Mark Twain does not paint a pretty picture of the time he spent in Constantinople.

He describes the grand bazaar as “a monstrous hive of little shops” and the Hagia Sophia as “the rustiest old barn in heathendom”

He was delighted with the Yerebatan Sarayi though, calling it the Thousand and One Columns.

“You are forty feet underground, and in the midst of a perfect wilderness of tall, slender, granite columns, of Byzantine architecture. Stand where you would, or change your position as often as you pleased, you were always a centre from which radiated a dozen long archways and colonnades that lost themselves in distance and the sombre twilight of the place.”

Constantinople Basilica

The Heads of Medusa

Walk to the back of the Basilica cistern to find two columns held up by heads of Medusa. One lays upside down and the other lays on its side. No one is sure of the factual reason for this but one favoured suggestion is no one who looked at the heads would turn to stone.

Yerebatan Sarayi

The Basilica Cistern and James Bond

Much before my time, but the 1963 film from Russia with Love, shows James Bond sailing through the columns of the cistern to reach a secret door. There are no signs of amazement or appreciation that he was in a famous structure of Istanbul but then again, he did have naughty and devious spies to catch.

Readers Question: Have you been to the Basilica cistern (Yerebatan Sarayi) of Istanbul? Were you impressed as much as I was?

Readers Tip : The cistern is very close to the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque so you can see them all on the same day.

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Hi. My name is Natalie Sayin and I am the author of The Turkish Travel Blog. I am an Internet addict with a passion for history. Read my story here or leave a comment below to join the discussions.
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  1. says

    Really must go there again as I’m starting to feel like the only person in the world who wasn’t blown away with Yerebatan. Think maybe I missed something. Great pics again. :)

    • says

      I loved it in there but I think because I did some research before hand, it helped. Also obsessed with Mark Twains book so any place he wrote about in Constantinople, I love to look at it from his point of view.

      It was really hard to take decent piccies. Out of 100, about 90 went in the bin!!
      Natalie wrote about..French Street in Istanbul

    • Jessica says

      I also was not too impressed when I toured Yerebatan. But I think if I had done research beforehand, as Natalie mentioned, I would have found it much more fascinating I think this holds true for a lot of historical attractions in general. Even for those sites that are beautiful on their own,knowing its historical context makes a visit much more worthwhile.

      And I also found the dress like an Ottoman sultan photo op a little distasteful and unnecessary.

      • says

        Glad to know that someone else thinks the Ottoman photo op should be trashed Jessica. It kind of ruins the experience imo. I love researching a place as well,before or after I visit as I think it does make the experience more memorable.
        Natalie wrote about..The Grand Bazaar of Istanbul : A Photo Guide

  2. says

    I’ve never been to – or even heard of – the Basilica cistern, but I remember it from the James Bond film. From Russia with Love is one of my faves, esp. the scary Russian lady with the switchblade shoes. Looks like a fabulous place to visit. I’m making a list of all the things I haven’t seen in Istanbul, all ready for next time :)
    Sophie wrote about..Tuesday Travel Take: Tiny Triesenberg

  3. Robert says

    My spouse is Turkish so when I first to Turkey, Istanbul was our first stop before landing in her home town of Mersin. We went in July, 2009 and besides the fascinating aspect of the cistern, i do recall vividly the heads but also tremendously enjoyed the cool temperature down below given that the weather was in high 90’s and very humid during our visit to Istanbul. This is indeed a world class city and one we will visit again and again especially since my wife’s family is from Turkey.

    • says

      Mersin is on my list of places to go Robert – I have heard fantastic things about the city. Need to do a bit more research on where to go and what to do, but definitely want to see it.
      Natalie wrote about..The Ghost Village Of Kayakoy

  4. says

    What a fascinating spot – what I love about the Cistern is, that it is so peaceful, such a refuge after the busy pace of Sultanahmet, such an escape. I once caught the Whirling Dervish dance with sufi music ( they usually do around Ramadan), it was so atmospheric. Thank you for taking me back there, look forward to visiting next time I am home.
    Tacky Ottoman dress up photo didn’t get me either!
    Ozlem’s Turkish Table wrote about..Victoria Sponge Cake with Berries and Lemon Curd & Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee

  5. says

    I’m impressed with people who do a little bit of research before visiting and then later on writing about the place.
    They have more meaningful observations and they provide insightful comments.

    “A traveller without knowledge is like a bird without wings.”

  6. Jennifer Roche says

    Loved the Cistern but wasnt blown away by it but that was probably because I had climbed Mount Nemrut, Went to Harran and spent a lot of time in Cappadocia just before my visit to the Cistern so I was already blown away by those places

  7. says

    Andy and I really enjoyed the Cistern. I had no idea it was even there, so I’m glad he knew about it. I was surprised by the fish, but it made for some interesting pictures.
    Ali wrote about..Bad Beds Around the World

  8. phil + Di marina gateway says

    i agree with you dressing up as a princess is a bit tacky but the Cistern itself looks well worth a visit

  9. says

    . . it’s a great site and you’ve brought it to life again! Did you know that the fish are blind from living underground so long?
    Alan wrote about..Back Road to Gölcuk

  10. says

    We did get a chance to explore the Cistern, and were amazed with it. I especially loved that they let me take my tripod in and set up :)
    Pete wrote about..Farewell to Burhaniye

  11. says

    Ali and I went this past April. It was a neat hour or so. Tons of school kids wandering around, but a nice break from the heat above ground. I did get a number of decent pictures of it actually.

    There is some oddity about it though. The Ottoman princess dressup is part of it. And down near one end they had some museum exhibit with a large fanciful slug monster statue in the water with a soundtrack and a plaque.
    The Medusa head area was less impressive than I had expected and crowded to boot. I still enjoyed going down into it.
    Andrew wrote about..Becoming an Expat to Escape

    • says

      I did not see the museum exhibit Andy and thankfully no school kids were around otherwise I would have screamed. The Medusa head was my favourite part of it I think, but then again because I researched to try and find out why they were not the right way round
      Natalie wrote about..French Street in Istanbul

  12. says

    There´s nothing on the surface to suggest the sheer size of the cistern. The entrance is this little building opposite Hagia Sofia..But once you start walking down the stairs you are immediately struck by the cathedral-size cavern below. And the columns are all different! As they were collected from all over the empire..I have to say for me the basilica cistern was even more powerful experience than Hagia Sofia itself. And it´s so COOL in the summer heat!
    Jamie S. wrote about..Top 5 Independent Coffee Shops in Toronto

    • says

      I too was amazed at how impressed I was considering its small size. Although not sure I agree with the statement of the Hagia Sophia! :)

  13. says

    The Head of Medusa- I think this one scored for me hands down. I don’t know why but I was guided by a sense of eariness the moment I had stepped in to this part of the Cistern. Was it natural to feel so? Not really sure…

    • Nat says

      Exactly – Nice and charming – A pleasant surprise!

  14. ve may bay di berlin says

    One of my favorite Istanbul attractions.
    We went in the late morning and it was already crowded. Entering in you go down flights of stairs while your eyes adjust to the soft orange glow of the Basilica lights illuminating cornith pillars.
    The crowds make it hard to navigate the boardwalks around the Basilica, and it gets worse around the Medusa heads towards the back.
    A neat surprise of this Basilica is the many Koi they float around and rise up to the water top as if to greet your arrival.
    there are many notices throughout the Basilica regarding no photography, but no one paid any attention to the notices and camera’s, I-phones, tablets were out in force snapping of pics. There was also no one enforcing this rule.
    Due to the darkness it’s hard to get a decent photo without flash, many people were standing below the lanterns for pics.
    There is a café underground in the Basilica but we did not visit it.

  15. says

    This is one of my favorite places to visit in Istanbul – I love the dark sort of mysterious feel to it all (without the dress up part). Can’t wait to take my oldest daughter there in December as she hasn’t seen it yet. Dan Brown’s book “Inferno” has some fairly extensive scenes that take place in the cistern. Reading it ahead of time added a certain dimension to the place, along with the more formal history.
    Susan wrote about..Vacation Rental Negotiation Strategy – VRBO, Homeaway, Flipkey

    • says

      It is on my list of books to read Susan – looking forward to it

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