Yerebatan Sarnıçı (Basilica Cistern)

Open daily 9am to 10pm. Admission: TL600 (until 6.30pm), TL1,000 (until 10pm)

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 column 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 regarded them as just so much reusable rubble.

The cistern is now one of the city’s main attractions, kitted out with metal walkways, suitably evocative lighting and a selection of artworks resting in the water. It’s almost always crowded with visitors who gaze in awe at the columns and at the coins thrown into the water beneath them, before trekking along the walkways to inspect Medusa’s head.

Hard though it is to imagine it, the Yerebatan Sarnıçı was forgotten for centuries, the first western visitor to learn of it being a 16th-century French traveller 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.

The entrance to the cistern is on Divan Yolu (the road with the tram) as it starts to run downhill. Visitors have to pass through security which slows admissions down at busy times.

In the days before mass tourism

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