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Istanbul’s Sunken Palace A Brief History of the Basilica Cistern

The city of Istanbul sits on the Sarayburnu peninsula and straddles the Bosphorus Strait between the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara. A city rich in culture and history, it was originally called Byzantium and for centuries has been a crossroads between east and west. Today this bustling city is an administrative center for Turkey as well as its largest city. Within the city itself are famed historic landmarks such as the Sunken Palace, also known as the Basilica Cistern or Sunken Cistern, built then later rebuilt and enlarged during Justinian's reign as a Byzantine emperor.

The Sunken Palace is located on the First Hill of the city. It was originally constructed as a basilica, contained gardens and was surrounded by a colonnade. The original purpose was as an artistic center and a meeting place for legal and commercial matters.

The Basilica Cistern was constructed beneath the palace and was used to supply water to the Great Palace of Constantinople as well as other buildings on the First Hill. Its purpose was water storage as well as water filtration for those buildings.

This huge historical cistern is approximately 105,000 square feet in area and can hold up to 2,800,000 cubic feet of water. Today the cistern is not used and has very little water. Due to its underground construction, the roof of the cistern is held aloft by 336 marble pillars. These pillars were salvaged from other buildings, some outside of the city itself and many of the pillars are either Ionic or Corinthian style with a few Doric columns. One of the main attractions of the cistern is the various carvings on the, two of which feature the head of the Gorgon, Medusa.

There are 52 steps leading down into this marvel of ancient architecture. The Sunken Basilica itself is surrounded by a wall and connected to an aqueduct that distributed the water. Over the centuries, it has been repaired many times. In May 1997, the cistern was re-opened to tourists after it had been cleaned out and repaired. That restoration saw 50,000 tons of mud removed from the cistern and platforms were built for the ease of access to tourists.

Touring this ancient artifact is one of the many attractions in the city of Istanbul. The history of an empire can be told in the artifacts and buildings left behind as well as its infrastructure – of which the cistern is an example. The use of recovered marble pillars shows the history of both the city and the surrounding areas.

Touring the cistern will take time in order to explore and enjoy the fascinating pillar carvings as well as the historical significance of the building itself. Staying nearby is recommended. Hotel Büyük Keban is just 2 km (or 1.2 miles) from the cistern, and equally close to some of Istanbul’s other major attractions, such as the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, Taksim Square, and the Hagia Sophia.

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