Yerebatan Sarnici or Basilica Cistern – Istanbul’s Sunken Palace

The Great Cistern of Justinian is also known as Yerebatan Sarayi or “the Sunken Palace”

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Yerebatan Sarnic - Basilica Cistern

Istanbul is full of hidden treasures and one which is truly hidden is the Yerebatan Sarnici or Basilica Cistern, an underground reservoir in the vicinity of Hagia Sophia.  Often called the Great Cistern of Justinian, the Basilica Cistern is no ordinary cistern. In Turkish, it is also referred to as Yerebatan Sarayi or the Sunken Palace and when you step down into the underground chamber you realize why – a sunken palace is just what it looks like.

Istanbul Cisterns

There are several hundred of these ancient cisterns beneath the city of Istanbul and the Basilica Cistern is the largest and most impressive of them. It was built in the 6th century during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian to provide water for the city of Istanbul. A great basilica stood on the site above the cistern, hence the name Basilica Cistern.

 About the Yerebatan Sarnici

The entrance to the Basilica Cistern, on Yerebatan Caddesi, is rather nondescript, but when you step down the stone staircase, and once your eyes adjust to the darkness, the view that unfolds takes your breath away. Supporting the ceiling are 336 marble columns, each 9 metres high. They are arranged in 12 rows of 28 columns each and 4.8 metres apart. The Basilica Cistern has a capacity of 80,000 cubic metres of water.

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Yerebatan Sarnici - Basilica Cistern

Along the walkways is atmospheric lighting and soft mood music also adds to the atmosphere of the place. On the columns you’ll to see various types of engravings. It appears that the columns have been taken from older buildings. The capitals of these columns are mainly Ionic and Corinthian styles with a few Doric ones with no engravings.

If you are a James Bond fan, you may recall a scene in the movie From Russia with Love, when James Bond and his Turkish colleague row in a dinghy through a forest of marble columns under the city – the Basilica Cistern was the setting for that scene.

Curiously Placed Medusa Heads

To the north-west corner of the cistern are two unusual Medusacolumn bases, one of the heads is curiously placed upside down, whereas the other is laid sideways. The origin of these heads is not known, however it is believed that they were removed from antique buildings of the late Roman period and subsequently brought to the cistern. Researchers believe that the heads were placed in their unusual positions deliberately.

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Medusa Head - Yerebatan Sarnici

If you’re looking for a break, the Cistern Cafe, near the exit, is a nice place to have a cup of coffee or snack and prolong your enjoyment of this exquisite site.

Yerebatan Sarnici is open daily from 09:00 to 18:00. You can get there by tram (Sultanahmet stop).

See more photos of Yerebatan Sarnici at Travelsignposts Basilica Cistern album Here.

Yerebatan Sarnici
Yerebatan Caddesi 13

Map of Istanbul

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