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When Istanbul was Constantinople during the period of the great Roman, and later Byzantium Empire, hundreds of subterranean cisterns were built underneath the streets and houses to store water. The largest and the grandest of them all is the Basilica Cistern, so called because it lay beneath the Stoa Basilica, a large Byzantine public square. This impressive structure with more than three hundred vaulted columns topped with Corinthian or Doric capitals appears like a palace, earning the cistern its modern nickname of the “Sunken Palace”. Locally, it’s known as Yerebatan Sarnıcı, Turkish for “underground cistern”.

The cistern was commissioned by Emperor Justinian I and built in 532 to meet the water needs of the Great Palace and adjacent buildings. It is 140 meters long and 70 meters wide, and had a storage capacity of 100,000 tons. The ceiling is supported by a forest of 336 marble columns, each 9 meters high and arranged in precise rows and columns. Many of these columns were salvaged from ruins of older buildings, likely brought to Constantinople from various parts of the empire, together with those that were used in the construction of Hagia Sophia.

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Photo credit: Marc Garrido Clotet/Flickr

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