Istanbul’s Caverns of Darkness

The Basilica Cistern is a sunken palace from the Byzantine age in the 6th century and is now one of the city’s top tourist attractions.

It is claimed that 7000 slaves helped construct the cistern, which acted as a kind of water filtration system for nearby buildings such as Hagia Sophia during the Byzantine and Ottoman eras.

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I was already in the Sultanahmet area of Istanbul, having just explored the Blue Mosque nearby. However, I somehow found it difficult to locate the Basilica Cistern. I saw the signs telling me where it should be alongside the roads, but for some reason I did not know what to look for when I got there. You can see from the picture above that the stairways down to the cistern are inside a very nondescript little building by the side of the road. Having finally located the Basilica Cistern, I paid my 10TL to go down into the caverns.

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The first thing anybody notices down there is the complete darkness of the place. It is also very slippery due to the water dripping from the roof down onto the floor and stairwells, and there are many signposts warning you to be careful where you are treading. It is very tempting to take photos as soon as you go down into the cistern, but as much of the caverns down here look the same, it is not necessary to all congregate at the beginning of the attraction. Despite that, though, it is easy to see the fish that live in the shallow water down here, from the entrance area, where the light is at its brightest. I don’t know if these fish have always lived down here from the 6th century onwards, or whether they have been introduced recently to add some ‘life’ to the attraction. I hope it’s the former, but I suspect it’s the latter!

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Drips fall on you from up there!

There are elevated walkways above the water for the tourists to use as they make their way around the Basilica Cistern and head to the area that is considered the highlight of the attraction: the two sunken medusa heads. These are located in the north west of the caverns, and the closer you get to the medusa heads, the slipperier it gets under foot, so be careful. You can even feel the water drops falling on your head and on your clothes from above at this point.

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The sunken Medusa heads, which are believed to have been taken from a nearby Roman building and placed here at Basilica Cistern, are a great photo opportunity, although it may be difficult to get a clear photo of them, due to the sheer number of people in this tiny little space. I also found it interesting to read that the Medusa heads were placed in the upside down and sideward positions by the superstitious Ottoman rulers as to negate the effect of Medusa’s infamous gaze (everything she stares at turns to stone, according to legend)!

On the way out of the Basilica Cistern I noticed a little café which was selling hot drinks and sandwiches. I was very tempted to sit here in the caverns of darkness underneath modern day Istanbul and enjoy a light bite to eat. That said, it is very, very noisy down here due to the echoes of the people talking, and on the day I visited there were also many school groups who were running around screaming, so I decided to pass on the opportunity this time, although I would recommend it to any future visitor!

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8 thoughts on “Istanbul’s Caverns of Darkness

  1. I went to the Cistern last year when I was in Istanbul. I was lucky enough to go on a day without school groups, and I remember the eerie silence down there.

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    1. Yeah, she is right, the way the heads are laid sideways and upside down is supposed to stop Medusa from staring at you properly – but I think that’s just an ancient myth. I don’t think modern Turks or tourists think that.

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