Construction in the Byzantine Empire: 532

An engraving of the Basilica Cistern by Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach, from his “A Plan of Civil and Historical Architecture” 



The Basilica Cistern was constructed during the reign of emperor Justinian I, during the 6th century in the year 532. Emperors had built cisterns inside the city walls to provide water to the local buildings. According to ancient texts, the Basilica Cistern was built on the backs of around 7,000 slaves, many of which died during construction. Huge marble columns, 336 in fact, support the 140m x 70m underground labyrinth, which allowed room for 100,000 tons of water.  Originally, a basilica— the Stoa Basilica— once stood where the cistern was to be constructed, thus giving the name of the “Basilica” Cistern. One of the most interesting aspects about the design and construction is the Medusa heads, evidence of art from the Roman period. While researchers believe that they act as supports for the columns, myths about the heads have risen, and many believe that they are used to protect the cistern, and to turn anyone who enters to do harm into stone— a nod to the influence of Greek mythology.

A mysterious Medusa head pays homage to Greek mythology within the cistern. 


The cistern was part of Emperor Justinian’s plan to revive the empire, by restoring and recovering both territory and public buildings. He was a prolific builder, and the Basilica Cistern was just one spawn of his building spree. Little did the emperor know that his cistern would carry Alois Reigl’s categories of age value and unintentional monument status, and would continue to be an important landmark in present day. While 1500 years might have passed and while the cistern is no longer needed to provide water to the city, the site serves, as Nora states, in everyone’s memories, transcending the lifestyle of those in the Byzantine empire, carrying the imprint of elapsing time, and now remaining constant and preserved as a renowned landmark, even though its functional use has long since expired. 


Korzhumbayeva, Aigerim. "Istanbul’s (Constantinople) 6th Century Basilica Cistern." Electrium Magazine. N.p., 20 July 2012. Web. 06 Nov. 2016.

"The Basilica Cistern." The Basilica Cistern. Trans. Irfan Koksal. N.p., n.d. Web. 06 Nov. 2016.

"YEREBATAN SARNICI." Basilica Cistern. Basilica Cistern, n.d. Web. 6 Nov. 2016.