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YEREBATAN

yerebatRunning west from Sultanahmet Meydanı across the tramlines is Yerebatan Caddesi which passes the entrance to the Yerebatan Sarnıçı (Underground or Basilica Cistern), the most famous and atmospheric of the many underground water storage tanks dating back to Byzantine times that dot Old İstanbul. 

This is an area that is likely to change enormously over the coming years with plans to demolish many of the buildings that currently stand above the cistern. Work has already started with the clearing of government offices to create a new park offering great views towards Ayasofya.

Yerebatan Sarnıçı (Basilica Cistern)

One of İstanbul’s best loved attractions is also one of its most curious. Across the road from Ayasofya, the 6th-century Yerebatan Sarnıcı is extraordinarily romantic. For many visitors, though, it's something of a mystery. What on earth was the purpose of this structure with its 336 columns lined up in rows, their bases sitting in water?

Actually, it was a giant reservoir for the water that had been piped into the town centre from the Thracian forests beyond the city walls. This particular cistern continued in use into Ottoman times. When full it would have been able to hold some 80 million litres of water.

For most visitors just gazing over the eerie vista of the columns is pleasure enough, but within the Yerebatan Sarnıcı there are also some specific sights including a pair of columns decorated with what look like the eyes in a peacock’s tail and two column bases adorned with giant heads, one of them said to depict the gorgon Medusa. The fact that one head is upside down and the other lying on its side suggests that the builders saw them as just so much resuable rubble.

The cistern is now one of the city’s main attractions, kitted out with walkways, suitably evocative lighting and the haunting sound of the ney (flute), and always crowded with visitors who gaze in awe at the columns and at the fish swimming in the water beneath them, before trekking along the walkways to inspect Medusa's head.
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Hard though it is to imagine it now, the Yerebatan Sarnıçı was forgotten for centuries, the first western visitor to learn of it being a 16th-century Frenchman called Petrus Gyllius who left a lyrical description of how he was taken fishing in a boat there by a man who had tunnelled into it just as some unscrupulous locals dig wells beneath their city-centre properties today.

Along Yerebatan Caddesi

Immediately opposite the entrance to the cistern the Tourism Police station is currently housed in a tall yellow-painted wooden house that must surely be a candidate for a change of use any day soon.

The three-storey house beside the Tourism Police station and beside the tram was home to Talat Paşa, grand vizier from 1917-18. 

Heading west along the road past the new park you will come to the small and little-noticed Uskubi İbrahim Ağa Cami standing on the site of a mosque dating back to 1465 which was built for Mehmet Han, a companion of Sultan Mehemet II. In 1491 that mosque was replaced with the present one, named after a man from Skopje (Uskubi). This was rebuilt in 1735 and again in 1953. The mosque has a single stumpy minaret and is adorned with a fountain named after Dilsiz (Dumb) Tavşan Ağa. The tomb of İbrahim Ağa is just inside the entrance.

kybeleOn the other side of the road beside the colourful Kybele Hotel a souvenir shop now fills what was once the 19th-century Esad Efendi Library, its contents now rehoused in the Süleymaniye Library.

Beyond the crossroads with Alay Köşkü Caddesi lies Çağaloğlu. If instead of going straight ahead you turn right down Alay Köşkü Caddesi you will come to the Hacı Beşir Ağa mosque complex which is distinguished by a fine sebil that dates back to 1745. It was built for Beşir Ağa, Chief of the Black Eunuchs in the reign of Sultan Mahmud I. The courtyard opens onto a small mosque fronted by a portico with a medrese, now reused as a Koranic school, opening off the side.

yerebat2Sleeping

There are a rapidly growing number of hotels in this area, many of them with fine views.

Adamar Hotel

And Hotel

Celal Sultan Hotel

İstanbul Old City Ayasofya Hotel

Kybele Hotel

Transport info

The nearest tram stop is Sultanahmet.

Nearby areas

Çağaloğlu

Divan Yolu

Gülhane

Hippodrome

Sultanahmet

yerebat3Quotation attributed to Napoleon on monument in park: "If the world was a single state, İstanbul would be its capital." 

 

 

 

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