There are hundreds of cisterns under Istanbul’s Historical Peninsula. In this article, I would like to introduce you to the Byzantine cisterns in Istanbul and help you understand what they were built for. In order to comprehend this subject, we will have to go on a journey in history and take a look at the Ancient Greek period of Istanbul.
Byzantium as an ancient Greek city
Istanbul was founded in 660 BC, by a group of people who migrated from Ancient Greece. The settlers who migrated from the city of Megara in the Gulf of Corinth decided to settle in what is now known as Sarayburnu (Seraglio Point).
Of course, this decision was not made by chance. The first hill of Istanbul, where Topkapi Palace is today, has a magnificent view and a strategic importance. Byzas, who wanted to turn this position into an advantage, decided to establish the city, which will take his name in the future.
Those who decided to settle in the Historical Peninsula may not have felt the lack of water in the first place. However, in the historical area of Istanbul, which we call Sultanahmet, water resources were very limited. In this newly established city, the shortage of water resources would pose a big problem over time.
Byzantium as a Roman city
The city founded by the leader Byzas began to be known as Byzantion in his memory. The city, which existed until 195 AD, came under the rule of the Roman Empire when Emperor Septimus Severus stepped into the city.
The Romans did not attach much importance to the city in their first years. By its Latinized name, Byzantium remained one of the hundreds of cities under the domination of Rome.
Foundation of Constantinople
However, in 300s, Emperor Constantine came to the throne. One of the first things he did was to move the capital east. It was decided that the New Rome, which will continue the function of Rome in Italy, would be Byzantium. The city was completely rebuilt and enlarged.
Emperor Constantine made a strategic decision just like Byzas. He preferred to be in a place equidistant to the Germanic Peoples and Persian Empire, the enemies of the Roman Empire for centuries. Roman senators and nobles flocked to “New Rome”. The population of the city increased suddenly. Then, water shortage had become the number one problem.
Roman Aqueduct in Istanbul
At this point, the construction of a large aqueduct began. This water transport system, which will solve the water problem of Constantinople, would be completed a few decades later during the reign of Emperor Valens. Istanbul’s Valens Aqueduct, also known as the “Bozdogan Kemeri” in the local language, got its name from this Roman emperor.
The water transport system established by the Romans constantly brought drinking water to Constantinople. Some sort of storage system had to be built in order to avoid wasting clean water. Thus, water cisterns were built in Istanbul.
Byzantine Cisterns in Istanbul
Today, there are hundreds of Byzantine cisterns located under the Old City of Istanbul. It can be a book if it is explained in all its details. However, in this article, we will talk about a few that are still visible today.
1. Basilica Cistern
Basilica Cistern was built in the 6th century during the reign of Emperor Justinian. The famous Justinian, who had expanded the borders of the Byzantine Empire to Italy, was also the ruler who had built Hagia Sophia.
While touring the Basilica Cistern, you think how beautiful the building is. This is why it is also known as “Sunken Palace”. However, nothing special was done in order to make this place aesthetic. All that was done was the reuse of the columns from the ancient temples left from the pagan Byzantium.
The Basilica Cistern was a reservoir of water and remained as a dark place filled with water from the 6th century until the 15th century. During the Ottoman Empire, it was not used and after a while even its existence was forgotten.
It is not recommended to use stationary water in Islamic culture. One of the reasons for this rule is the possibility of poisoning by the enemy, and the other is that the water is suitable for contamination. In Turkish-Islamic culture, it is recommended to drink water from the river or stream if possible.
Due to this tradition, the Ottomans left the Byzantine cisterns in Istanbul to their fate and did not use them. They managed to direct water from the aqueduct to street fountains and used running water.
As such, even the Basilica Cistern located in the center of the city was forgotten. After many years, Petrus Gyllius, a Byzantine historian of French origin, rediscovered the existence of the cistern during his research in Istanbul.
The cistern, which was used as a workshop for a period, was filled with rain water and then buried in the dark again. It is rumored that adventurous travelers, who came to Istanbul in the 19th century, toured by boat in the light of a kerosene lamp. Of course, some locals who realized this curiosity of foreigners earned money from this business by organizing tours with their boats.
Transforming the Basilica Cistern into a museum as we know it today dates back only 50 years. Bedrettin Dalan, who served as mayor in Istanbul in the 1980s, cleaned the centuries-old dirty water and mud in the cistern and turned it into a museum.
Medusa Sculptures found during the cleaning works created a great excitement in the world of history and archeology. Two Medusa heads in Basilica are still the most remarkable and mysterious objects of the museum.
2. Cistern of Philoxenos
Cistern of Philoxenos is located very close to the Hippodrome of Constantinople. The cistern, built in the 5th century, stood beneath a Roman structure (Palace of Antiochos) located in this area. The cistern, which is older than the Basilica Cistern, is known today as Binbirdirek, which means 1001 columns.
Justinian, who built the Basilica Cistern, also repaired and strengthened the Cistern of Philoxenos. Cistern of Philoxenos is smaller than the Basilica Cistern, which covers an area of 9800 square meters and is supported by 336 columns. Whereas Cistern of Philoxenos covers approximately 3640 square meters in size and has 224 columns.
The Cistern of Philoxenos, which is in a very good condition today, is unfortunately not open to visitors. Although rarely, it hosts some events.
3. Theodosius Cistern
Theodosius Cistern, built by Emperor Theodosius II, is a 1600-year-old building. Theodosius, an Eastern Roman emperor who ruled in the 4th century, made a significant contribution to Constantinople.
For example, Walls of Constantinople and Theodosian Hagia Sophia were also built during the reign of Theodosius. To give additional information, Hagia Sophia, the most important historical monument of Istanbul, was rebuilt three times. The first was made by Constantius, the son of Constantine the Great, the second by Theodosius II, and the last by Justinian I, which we mentioned in the upper lines.
The construction of Theodosius Cistern took approximately 15 years between 428 and 443. As the Great Palace and its surroundings were the administrative center of the capital during the Roman and Byzantine periods, a special effort was made to supply water to this area.
The biggest cisterns that provided water to important buildings such as the Great Palace, Hippodrome and Hagia Sophia were the cisterns we mentioned in this article.
4. Nakilbent Cistern
Nakilbent Cistern, like many cisterns in Istanbul, had been abandoned and found by chance again. The cistern, whose real name is unknown, got its name from Nakilbent Street.
Nakkas Carpet Store, which was opened in the area in the early 2000s, found this precious historical artifact and turned it into a museum during the construction of the building.
You can find a lot of information about the history of the Hippodrome, where chariot races were held in Constantinople, in the small-scale exhibition inside the Nakilbent Cistern. Hippodrome, which has an important place among the Byzantine Sites in Istanbul, was the biggest entertainment area of the city for centuries. The Hippodrome was hosting the tough chariot races between the Blues and the Greens.
Today, only a few columns remain from Hippodrome, a stadium where tens of thousands of people gathered. For this reason, most travelers do not know what this square really is. If you visit the exhibition in Nakilbent Cistern, you can strengthen your knowledge about Hippodrome.
5. Cistern of Aetius
Cistern of Aetius was an important part of the water system of Constantinople, which had a rather complex structure. Unlike other cisterns mentioned in the article, Cistern of Aetius was an open water reservoir. Cistern of Aetius, which was built in the 5th century like the Theodoius Cistern mentioned above, was built by one of the governors of Theodosius II period, Aetius.
The cistern, which lost its importance in the Ottoman period, was turned into the stadium of a football team during the Republican period. While going from Fatih to Edirnekapı, you can see this stadium on the right. It is also very close to some other Byzantine monuments in Istanbul such as Kariye Museum and the Palace of the Porphyrogenitus.
Byzantine Cisterns in Istanbul by Serhat Engul