Yerebatan Basilica Cistern

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I had a passing tourist guide take this photo. What do you think?

It’s hard to believe now, but the Yerebatan Basilica Cistern, once the major water supply of Constantinople, was lost to Istanbul until the 16th century. As recorded by Ogier de Busbecq, a visitor to the city heard rumours of locals fishing from their basements and went to see. The visitor, French scholar Petrius Phyllius, found an underground cavern dating back to the 6th century, full of rubbish, detritus and corpses.

The first time I visited the Basilica cistern, I had a mammoth hangover. It was 1990 and just before the Gulf War started. I’d spent the previous night discussing the state of the world while drinking Black Sea brandy with other travellers. At £1 a bottle, we finished way more than one.

I love these floating jelly fish

Undeterred I let the energy of Istanbul revive me and headed to the small ramshackle hut that served as an entrance to the cistern back then. Its modest appearance did nothing to prepare me for the eerie space below. 336 columns formed seemingly endless rows of stone, casting rippling shadows into a space that once held nearly 100,000 tons of water. Even though the water level was only a few inches and the space crowded with other people, the atmosphere was striking. There was no orchestral sound and light show then, as there was the second time I visited in 2007 with my Dad, and in the silence I realised there was no echo. No sound at all.

Beware the wrath of Medusa.
This is what Medusa looked like when I visited with my Dad in 2007.

I followed the mossy stone paths to the far walls and gazed upon the two snake-covered heads of Medusa, one laying sideways and the other upside down. In Greek mythology Medusa was one of three Gorgon monsters, and the only one who was human. She was killed by Perseus who cut off her head. No one’s certain where these heads came from and why they aren’t displayed upright, but one theory is that the Christians placed pagan heads upside down to affirm their own faith.

And this is what she looks like in 2023.

The Yerebatan Basilica Cistern received a face lift in 2023, with the beauty of the rows of columns enhanced by the addition of whimsical and evocative sculptures located amongst the columns. They’ve done away with the soundtrack but use clever lighting so the space is alternatively modern and contemporary, or shadowy and a touch sinister. A visit to the underground cisterns should definitely be on your list of things to see when you come to Istanbul. It never ceases to astound.


Here are my helpful tips to check out while planning your trip to Turkey

For FLIGHTS I like to use

Don’t pay extra for an E-VISA. Here’s my post on everything to know before you take off.

However E-SIM are the way to go to stay connected with a local phone number and mobile data on the go. Airalo is easy to use and affordable.

Even if I never claim on it, I always take out TRAVEL INSURANCE. I recommend Visitors Coverage.

I’m a big advocate of public transport, but know it’s not suitable for everyone all the time. When I need to be picked up from or get to Istanbul Airport or Sabiha Gokcen Airport, I use one of these GetYourGuide website AIRPORT TRANSFERS.

ACCOMMODATION: When I want to find a place to stay I use

CITY TOURS & DAY TRIPS: Let me guide you around Kadikoy with my audio walking tour Stepping back through Chalcedon or venture further afield with my bespoke guidebook Istanbul 50 Unsung Places. I know you’ll love visiting the lesser-known sites I’ve included. It’s based on using public transport as much as possible so you won’t be adding too much to your carbon footprint. Then read about what you’ve seen and experienced in my three essay collections and memoir about moving to Istanbul permanently.

Browse the GetYourGuide website or Viator to find even more ways to experience Istanbul and Turkey with food tours, visits to the old city, evening Bosphorus cruises and more!

However you travel, stay safe and have fun! Iyi yolculuklar.

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