The next stop on our tour of Istanbul was the Basilica Cistern, another 'must-see' sight on my list. The Yerebatan Sarnici ("Sunken Palace") as it's know by the locals, is the largest of several ancient cisterns that lie underneath the city of Istanbul. Constructed in the 6th century and then forgotten about for many centuries thereafter, the Basilica Cistern, a former underground Roman public building, was used to supply much of the water used by all of the Byzantine Places in Istanbul. After remaining untouched for years, the cathedral-sized cistern was rediscovered by Frenchman Peter Gyllius in 1545. Since its rediscovery, the cistern has undergone a number of renovations, most notably by sultan's whose palaces the cistern supplied with water. In 1987, after 2 years of renovations by the Istanbul Metropolitan Museum where 50,000 tons of mud had been removed and wooden walkways added, the Basilica Cistern was finally open to the public for visitation.
The cistern itself is quite impressive. The light bouncing off the 336 marble columns creates an eerily romantic ambiance, and the cool, clammy underground air provides a nice reprieve from the summer sun outside. Occasionally you'd feel a drop of water falling from the vaulted ceilings and could see fish swimming around the base of the columns, but one of the most fascinating parts of this underground wonder is the upside-down heads of Medusa that form the base of two columns in the Northwest corner of the cistern. The origin of the two heads is unknown, but they were definitely not an original fixture of the cistern when it was first established. It is speculated that the two heads were brought to the cistern after being removed from an old Roman building. Interesting how Byzantine builders thought Roman relics to be no more than reusable rubble, huh? Legend has it that the orientation of Medusa's heads (one inverted and the other lying sideways) were strategically placed so as to negate the power evil forces. Thankfully, no evil spirits were found during our cistern tour, so I guess it's working.
More info on the Basilica Cistern's location, opening times, and entrance fees can be found here.
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