Istanbul’s famous Basilica Cistern reopens after five years of restoration: more art, less earthquakes

Improved lighting in the yerebatan sarnıcı. Image: MasterLu (Canva)

The Basilica Cistern has been reopened to visitors after the completion of restoration works. The famous underground water reservoir located close to the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul closed in 2017 as authorities feared it could be damaged by earthquakes. After five long years of restoration, the historic building will be open every day of the week to the public.

The renovation of the cistern, also known as the yerebatan sarnıcı, included a lower footbridge above the water, bringing tourists within half a meter of its surface, Turkish news website Hürriyet Daily News reported. And with improved lighting, the floor is now visible for the first time since its construction in the 4th century. Now that the building is safe against earthquakes, the underground reservoir will feature light shows and artwork installations.

Renovation efforts

Aysen Kaya, deputy head of the municipality’s heritage department, send her workers to strengthen and clean up the 138-meter by 65-meter water palace for the last five years. The pink brick walls have been cleared of traces of past, less elegant renovation efforts. “By scraping off the added layers of cement, we brought the bricks up to date,” said Kaya to Hürriyet Daily News.

The Basilica Cistern could store nearly 80,000 litres of water, which was transported with aqueducts from mountains 19 kilometres to the north. The water reservoir helped protect the Byzantines from summer drought. Kaya mentioned as an example that they exposed two pipes during the latest renovation work: one brought water to the Hagia Sophia, and another to a palace that stood before the sultans built the Topkapı harem next door.

Renovation works in the cistern. Image: screenshot Hispanatolia TV

Eventually, the reservoir fell into disuse but was rediscovered by Frenchman Petrus Gyllius in 1545. He found locals selling very fresh fish in the nearby streets. Since their houses were located above the cistern, they had sunk wells into it and sometimes caught fish from it.

The atmospheric setting has attracted thriller writers across the ages. The Basilica Cistern featured in the famous James Bond film From Russia With Love in 1963, while also Robert Langdon from Dan Brown’s Inferno (2013) took place in the underground reservoir.

Medusa and jellyfishes

Better safe than sorry, the builders of the cistern must have thought. Image: Dosseman via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Apart from the impressive cistern itself, there is plenty to see underground. For example, two Medusa heads were repurposed as the bases of two columns in the northwest corner. The origins of the two heads are unknown, although they are thought to have been transported to the reservoir after being taken from a Roman building. The blocks are supposed to be placed sideways or upside down to, according to legend, make sure that people who lock gazes with them are not turned to stone.

The renovation also allowed to make room for other artworks in the cistern. At the heart of the structure, modern works have been inserted for extra effect, such as a grasping hand emerging from the water. And shady figures now house between the columns of the cistern, adding to its gloomy air. “We wanted a light installation that takes nothing away from the mystical atmosphere of the place,” Kaya said.

Sources: Hürriyet Daily News