Introduction: The Basilica Cistern

The Basilica Cistern is perhaps one of the oldest, most enduring sites in the cultured city of Istanbul. Built under the Emperor Justinian I in the 6th century, the site still remains today, below the surface of a modernizing city adjacent to the famed Hagia Sophia. In Nora’s words, the site acts as a “lieu de memoire,” or a “symbolic element of the memorial heritage” of Istanbul, in that the site plays to the memory of modern visitors and citizens of the city alike. The Basilica Cistern is anchored in memory, memory of its former functional use compared to its current aesthetic appeal and landmark status, and memory of the greater ways of life throughout the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires. 

Memory is life, borne by living societies founded in its name. It remains in permanent evolution, open to the dialectic of remembering and forgetting, unconscious of its successive deformations, vulnerable to manipulation and appropriation, susceptible to being long dormant and periodically revived… Memory is a perpetually actual phenomenon, a bond tying us to the eternal present… Memory, insofar as it is affective and magical, only accommodates those facts that suit it; it nourishes recollections that may be out of focus or telescopic, global or detached, particular or symbolic- responsive to each avenue of conveyance or phenomenal screen, to every censorship or projection… Memory takes root in the concrete, in spaces, gestures, images, and objects… memory is absolute, while history can only conceive the relative.” (Nora 8-9)

Although the site has endured many evolutions and restorations, and has been through multiple rulers and a changing culture and modernizing city, the memory of the site, the value and implications that it holds, and the bond that links the past to the present, remain strong. Throughout history, during its construction and initial use, during the Byzantine Empire and its troubles, during Ottoman conquest and Ottoman rule, throughout its dormant phase and rediscovery, and until its present manifestation into a cultural landmark, the Basilica Cistern reminds us through its memories how the inhabitants of Constantinople, and later Istanbul, used to live, and it acts as a palimpsest for the city. While many layers have been added over a 1500 year period, the site, much like at its inception, still serves as a part of the foundation and backbone of the city of Istanbul.