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The cisterns of Istanbul

The cisterns of Istanbul
There are very few freshwater sources in Constantinople, so the locals collect and store them.
The Byzantines built aqueducts and cisterns for these purposes. Aqueducts delivered water to cisterns, which were open and closed, and stored fresh water.

Cistern designs also differed. Some collected rainwater and others got water from the water supply.
Throughout the city, cistern reservoirs were everywhere. The tunnels were built under forts, palaces, rich houses and churches.

Several reservoirs have dried up; some have been destroyed or are in ruin, while others have been turned into museums that can be visited.

The cisterns of Istanbul

Cistern from the Basilica

  • It’s one of the largest and best-preserved underground reservoirs in Constantinople, the Basilica Cistern.
  • It is known as the “cistern-palace” because of its seemingly endless marble columns; the cistern was built under Justinian I. This place used to have a basilica, so the name Basilica Cistern came from that.
  • An underground structure of 140 meters in length and 70 meters in width, the cistern held about 100,000 tons of water. Each column in the tank is 9 meters high, forming 12 rows of 28 columns. There are a lot of columns from ancient temples and old buildings, and others are carved from marble. In the tank, therefore, the columns are different.
  • Cistern columns are called “weeping columns” or “columns of tears“. It got its name because it’s always wet and has surface patterns resembling teardrops.
  • Under two columns in the northwest corner of the cistern are two Medusa heads used as pedestals.

You can visit these cistern museums in Istanbul.

  • There are several legends associated with these sculptures.
  • According to one legend, the Gorgon’s sculptures and paintings were used at that time to protect buildings and private properties, so the head of the jellyfish was buried in a cistern. In another rumour, Medusa was a girl who loved her long hair, black eyes, and beautiful body. In love with Zeus’ son Perseus, Medusa.
  • Perseus and Medusa were also in love with Athena. Athena turned Medusa’s hair into snakes, and anyone who looked at her turned to stone. Perseus cut off Medusa’s head, and she used her power to defeat many enemies.
  • Byzantium had Medusa’s head engraved on sword hilts and upside-down columns so the beholders wouldn’t turn into stone when they looked at them.

There’s a Basilica Cistern in Istanbul’s historical centre, not far from the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia Mosque, at Alemdar, Yerebatan Cd. 1/3, 34110 Fatih/Istanbul, Turkey.
The cistern is pay-to-enter.
The site of the Basilica Cistern:

Theodosius Cistern

  • Sherefiye cisterns, or Theodosius cisterns, are one of the city’s largest and most significant closed cisterns. They’re also restored, and function as a museum, and visitors get a 10-minute show with three-dimensional effects and music.
  • Theodosius II built the Sherefie cistern in 428-443. Valens’ aqueduct supplied water for the cistern.
  • A rectangle-shaped cistern with a ceiling height of 11 meters and a size of 45 x 25 meters. Featuring 45 sail arches and 32 monolithic marble columns girded with iron brackets, it’s 9 meters high.

It is located under a modern building; the entrance is on Piyer Loti Caddesi Street 2/1. Theodosius Cistern address: Binbirdirek, Piyer Loti Cd. No:2/1, 34122 Fatih/Istanbul, Turkey.
The cistern is pay-to-enter.
Theodosius Cistern website:

Binbirdirek Cistern

  • It’s also called the Philoxena Cistern. It’s the second biggest reservoir in Istanbul after the Basilica Cistern.
  • It’s much fewer than 1001 columns in the cistern since the word “Binbirdirek” translates from Turkish.
  • During the reign of Constantine I (4th century), a cistern was built. The cistern dried up over time, and from the 16th century on, it was used as a workshop.
  • There are 212 columns left of the 224 originals in the cistern. There are 3584 square meters in the preserved cistern.
  • The columns in the cistern are two superimposed parts with truncated pyramidal capitals. The Greek letters engraved on their bodies in the cistern and on the columns are the signs of the masons who built them.
  • You can visit the Philoxene cistern as a museum. Also used for concerts, weddings, banquets, and other celebrations.

The cistern is pay-to-enter.
Binbirdirek Cistern Address: Binbirdirek Mah. İmran Öktem Cad. 34122 Fatih / İSTANBUL.
Binbirdirek Cistern website:

Nakkash Cistern

  • Under the carpet store is the Nakkash cistern, or Nakilbent cistern, which dates back to the 6th century.
  • Cisterns like this are less famous and big.
  • In the cistern, there are exhibitions.

Address cistern: Nakilbent Sok. No:13 34122 Sultanahmet / İSTANBUL.
The store’s website:

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