I’m a little bit of a history nerd. Okay, I’m a big history nerd. And with a visit to the ancient city of Istanbul (old Constantinople), I certainly got my fix. There is so much history in this city, as there is in many European cities. But relics of the great Byzantine Empire are not something you find in Western Europe.

Naturally, a visit to the Basilica Cistern (an ancient, underground cavern built for the storage of water) was pretty high on my to-do list in this city. Built in the 6th century, having been commissioned by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, the Basilica Cistern is the largest of several hundred ancient cisterns lying under the city. This one in particular served the needs of the original Great Palace of Constantinople and continued to supply water to Tokpapi Palace after the Ottoman conquest in 1453.

This really is the stuff that ignites the fire of any child (or adult’s) imagination. As I slowly descended the 52 stone steps leading down into the depths of the old reservoir, the cool, damp air welcomingly greeted my perspiring brow. The atmospheric chamber, consisting of 336 marble columns, all dimly lit with soft orange lamps, truly was a sight to behold.

Basilica Cistern, Istanbul

A small boardwalk runs through the centre of the cistern, from which you can gaze with awe at this truly magnificent chamber. Nowadays, only a few feet of water remains in the bottom of the cistern, however, in ancient times, up to 80,000 cubic metres of water (enough to fill 27 Olympic sized swimming pools) could be stored here. Fish swim happily around the bottom of the pool, as they’ve done for the past 1,500 years. It is said that they were originally used as a security measure, because if the water was poisoned, the unfortunate floating fish would surely tell the tale.

Basilica Cistern, Istanbul

One of the highlights of a visit to the Basilica Cistern are the two Medusa heads, hidden all the way at the back of the cavern. There are conflicting opinions about the origin of these marble carvings of the mythological monster, one casually laid on its side and the other positioned upside down at the base of two of the chamber’s columns. Rumour has it that these ancient relics were used simply to prop up these two columns, which were of insufficient height. Other interpretations note that Medusa heads were often placed at monuments for protective reasons, and the positioning of the heads at such low heights, meant that the petrifying gaze of the monster’s image would be negated to the tenders of the cistern. The mystery remains.

Medusa Head, Basilica Cistern, Istanbul

Visiting the Basilica Cistern was truly impressive. Unfortunately, the throngs of tourists are also now well aware of the cistern’s existence and there can be huge crowds both queuing to buy tickets and also underground. My tip would be to latch on to a ‘guide’, who will offer you a chance to skip the queue (2 hours long by the time we arrived) and also give you a short 10-minute tour of the cistern, after which you are free to explore at your leisure, all for only 10 lira (3 euros). Now that’s a good deal.

I’d love to hear about the ancient, atmospheric places you’ve visited on your travels!