A cistern is an underground reservoir to store the rainwater with the purpose of providing freshwater to the city. Since Istanbul lacks freshwater supplies such as rivers, Byzantians relied on these cisterns to meet their needs as well as aqueducts. They were usually built near and under important buildings such as palaces. Ottomans thought running water is purer compared to still water, therefore, the majority of the cisterns were put in use as storages during the Ottoman period. Most of them were protected from human or natural destruction as the entrances of cisterns were closed and they were beneath the buildings which are also the reasons why most of them were discovered at a much later time. In this article, we will look into a few important cisterns which you can visit in the Sultanahmet Area.


The most famous cistern of Istanbul is Yerebatan Cistern (the Basilica Cistern) near to SultanAhmet Square. It takes its English name after the Basilica structure once located just above the cistern. The cistern was built by Justinian I during the 6th century. It was designed in rectangle shape with 336 columns and 339 vaults in a about 9,800 square metres area which makes it the biggest closed cistern built in Constantinople. Just as other structures built in the reign, most of its construction materials were reused materials brought from collapsed structures. There are different legendary narrations related to the head of Medusa located beneath one of the columns in the cistern and why it was put there. However, it is most likely to be taken from a destructed temple and simply put in use there to elevate the column. The other notable reused material is the so-called “peacock-eyed” or “tear-drop” column.



            The second biggest surviving cistern is Binbirdirek Cistern (Cistern of Philoxenos / “Thousand and One Columns” Cistern) near the Hippodrome Square. As the Byzantine sources indicate, it was built in the 4th century by senator Philoxenos to supply water to one of the most populated areas. Of the 224 original columns in the Binbirdirek Cistern, 212 have survived. Unlike the reused materials of Yerebatan Cistern, the columns were manufactured for the cistern. The Greek letters engraved in the columns are known to be signs of stonemasons carved by them. In the 16th century, water dried out and the cistern was used as an atelier.



Another cistern you can visit in the vicinity is Serefiye Cistern (Cistern of Theodosius). It is among the cisterns that can benefit from the distribution line on the Mese. It is thought to be built in the 5th century by the look of its construction technique and, therefore, to be built by Theodosius II which is the reason it is called Cistern of Theodosius.



            The next stop is Gulhane Sarnıcı (Cistern of Gulhane) within the area of Gulhane Park just down to Hagia Sophia. It is thought to be built in the 5th century. We do not have information on who ordered and endowed the construction. Just like other cisterns, it was placed under a structure which is thought to be either a monastery or a public bath. This newly renovated cistern also hosts exhibitions for those who are interested.