Originally a 3rd or 4th century Roman Basilica, the Basilica Cistern is just one of the several hundred cisterns that lie beneath the city of Istanbul. This one is the largest and is located just southwest of the Hagia Sofia. It was rebuilt during the Byzantine empire years ago, and has undergone many reconstructions since that time. It first opened to the public in 1987, and since then it has become a favorite tourist destination.
We can learn a little bit about what the cistern was like in its hay-day from ancient texts. It was filled with gardens and was used as a water filtration for the Topkapi Palace after the Ottoman conquest in 1453 until modern times. Some of the columns that support the structure have beautiful hand-carvings that add to the design. This one is known as the “peacock eyed column.”
There are two medusa heads that act as a base for two of the columns. There are multiple speculations about why this is so. Some have said the one is oriented sideways in order to negate the powers of Gorgon’s gaze (one of medusa’s immortal sisters). Others say the one was placed sideways simply because it was the right size. Another speculation about the medusa heads was that they were put there in order to keep the slaves who were building the cistern to keep to work and not look up (in mythology looking into Medusa’s eyes will result into turning to stone).
Today, the cisterns make for a great journey through history, and they are located near all of the other top tourist attractions in Istanbul making it very accessible. Also, if you like Dan Brown books, check out his most recent book, Inferno, where some of the action takes place in this historic part of Istanbul. Also, while in Istanbul check out the wonderful Bazaars.