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The Istanbul cisterns are a fascinating insight in to the city’s ancient history. Take a trip here to enjoy this unusual spectacle.

Istanbul cisterns

The city of Istanbul is a fascinating cultural hub, being the only capital to straddle two continents. This amalgamation of East meets West is evident all over the city, reflected in many interesting and unusual architectural features. Among the most spectacular are the Istanbul cisterns, also known as the Yerebatan Sarnici. These strangely beautiful underground chambers are now one of the most popular tourist attractions in the city and are definitely not to be missed.

Ancient wonders

The cisterns were built in 532 after being commissioned by Emperor Justinian. Aqueducts carried water from the nearby Black Sea and stored it here so that it could be used in the Great Palace. Their original name was, in fact, the Basilica Cisterns because they were situated underneath Stoa Basilica, one of the main city squares of the time. Believed to be capable of holding up to 80,000 cubic metres of water, this impressive feat of architectural engineering is supported by 336 columns, some Ionic, some Corinthian. As was typical of the enterprising Byzantines, much of the stonework was re-purposed from much older ancient Roman buildings, giving the entire cisterns a curiously timeless air. Although they fell into disuse once the Byzantine Emperors had moved out of the Palace, the cisterns were rediscovered in 1545 by Frenchman Peter Gyllius during his historical research of the area. In 1987, after an extensive cleaning and restoration programme, the cisterns were opened to the public. You can now walk along wooden platforms, with the cavernous arched ceilings high above you and pools of fish below.

The mysterious Medusas

Two of the most breath-taking sights are the enormous Medusa pillars, each featuring a colossal representation of the Medusa head at their base. Their origin is unclear but it is likely that they were taken from ancient temples. One of them is completely inverted and the other tilted to one side. There are two theories as to the reasoning behind this. The first is that placing the heads like this would prevent anyone who saw the pillars being affected by the hideous Gorgon’s gaze. The other, less prosaic rationale, is simply that they were a better, more stable fit this way. Another pillar of note is the Column of Tears, which is reputed to be wet with the tears of the slaves used to construct the cisterns. If you’re a fan of James Bond then you may well recognise the cisterns. Their incredible atmosphere makes them the perfect setting for all sorts of television, film, literary and even computer gaming dramas. One of their most notable appearances was in the 1963 film From Russia With Love. A few liberties were taken with their provenance, not least the notion that they were situated underneath the Russian Embassy, which they are not. But the cisterns certainly made for a dramatic film location. If you're booking discount holidays to Turkey and you have the chance a visit this haunting spectacle, you can’t help but be impressed by the sheer grandeur and evocative ambience.

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