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Underneath Istanbul with the Basilica Cistern

Basilica CisternUnderneath Istanbul there are a huge amount of old cisterns, with the Basilica Cistern being the largest and most well known. It is one of the strangest attractions in Istanbul, but an attraction it is!

For any James Bond fan you will recognise the huge marble pillars that are underground and part of the Basilica Cistern, as it was where Bond himself famously rowed up in the film “From Russia with Love.”

The Basilica Cistern was built in 532 when Emperor Justinian 1 was in power and it was built to service the water requirements of his Great Palace. The Basilica Cistern is 65 metres wide and over 140 metres long and there is a colossal 336 marble columns holding it up.

The cistern was buried for an extremely long time period of time and was rediscovered purely by accident by the Frenchman Peter Gyllius. Peter was researching antiques in the city at the time and it struck him as strange when people were able to get water from the holes in their basements and on the odd occasion catch a fish! 

This discovery led to a cleaning and restoration project of the Basilica Cistern, and it was eventually opened to the public in 1987 under the order of the Turkish government.

Entry to the Basilica Cistern is via steps that go under the city. Once underground, there are several walkways to explore. Probably the most important sight to see is located right in the left hand corner of the Cistern. Here you will see that there are two Medusa heads used as bases to the columns. One is upside down whilst the other is tilted to the side. Why they are here and where they came from remains an unknown mystery to this day, but they are spectacular and a must see. 

Basilica CisternMedusa was a sea nymph who was courting Poseidon. They sealed their courtship by making love in the temple of Athena, but when she found out she flew into a rage and cursed Medusa; transforming her into a monster with snakes for hair, and such a horrendous face that she could turn people to stone with just a look. Perseus beheaded Medusa as she slept and used her head as a weapon before presenting it to Athena to put on her shield. Myth has it that because Medusa had made love to Poseidon that once beheaded her body split into two forms, that of the winged horse Pegasus and the other Chrysador of the Golden Sword.

The Basilica Cistern is open daily from 9am – 5.30pm. It closes early at 1pm on the first day of any religious holidays. The entrance fee is 10TL.

Whilst this may seem a strange place to visit, it is beautiful on a hot day as it provides a respite from the sun and is incredibly cool. It is also really interesting to see the magnificent structure, how it functioned and learn about its uses whilst marvelling at the fabulous pillars that have held this up through the tests of time. 

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