istanbul basilica cistern

This is probably one of the most common travel photos from Istanbul, Turkey you’ll find anywhere. The Basilica Cistern, built around the 3rd century, is an elegantly simple structure with the added bonus that it’s nearly impossible to take a bad photograph of. Everyone who visits does, and straight on from the entrance is the most popular and overdone shot; though too alluring to resist. These large columns, lit up in an eerie red reflecting off the shallow waters that flood the interior, are basically that. What you see is what you get – angle upon stone angle. Some columns toward the back of the cistern have upside-down Medusa heads, which are hyped enough by the signs and pamphlets to make them inevitably disappointing beyond the 20 Turkish lira entrance.

The site was originally the location of a Roman church, before being destroyed and converted into a water repository (aka. cistern). Though meandering around the narrow wooden walkways you’re likely to conjure up images of monks praying in solitude, the cistern had a much more practical purpose for most of its existence. The Byzantines and Ottomans both used it as a water filtration system, although how this was accomplished is neither explained nor obvious in the construction.

What Turkish authorities should really do is advertise the fact that you can’t take a bad (or even mediocre) picture of the Basilica Cistern, which sits underground right across from Hagia Sophia (immediately over the tram tracks facing it). The Basilica Cistern can be easy to miss however, since the entrance is hardly remarkable, if not a bit creepy to be honest.

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You can see more of my pictures from the Basilica Cistern and the rest of Istanbul here.