“Cistern of Philoxenos”
Binbirdirek (“Thousand and One Columns”) Cistern is often identified as the Cistern of Philoxenos known from textual sources, though another candidate is the ruins of an open cistern in Cağaloğlu.
The Cistern of Philoxenos (Greek: Κινστέρνα του Φιλοξένου) was located somewhere west of the Hippodrome of Constantinople. This cistern is often identified as Binbirdirek Cistern (Turkish: Binbirdirek Sarnıcı, “Thousand and One Columns” Cistern), although there is also another candidate in the vicinity, the ruins of an open cistern in Cağaloğlu.
Located almost 300 meters southeast of the Column of Constantine just south of the Mese (Constantinople’s main street), Binbirdirek Cistern is the second largest surviving covered cistern in modern Istanbul. The cistern, which perhaps dates to the 5th or 6th century, originally had a capacity of around 40,000 cubic meters of water. It has a rectangular plan with brick walls and beveled corners, measuring around 64 x 56 meters.
Its vaulting consists of brick groin vaults supported by 224 (14 rows of 16) Proconnesian marble columns spaced 3.75 meters apart. Its double columns connected with stone collars are almost 12 meters tall. Much of the current floor is higher than its original level due the sediment that accumulated over the centuries, making most of the columns are only partially visible. They are topped with simple trapezoidal impost capitals, which were probably produced for this building. The Proconnesian marble capitals and stone collars have numerous masons’ marks, which perhaps refer to the names of master masons or companies of masons. Wooden tie beams were placed between the springing of arches to reinforce the cistern. While they have since been replaced with metal rods, the sockets holding the tie beams can still be seen above the capitals. They helped stabilize the structure in the event of an earthquake, as the columns would move in unison, preventing the cistern from collapsing.
Its walls, which are 9 m thick, were built with bricks that are 35-40 cm wide and 4-6 cm thick, while the mortar joints are 4-6 cm thick. Its walls were completely lined with hydraulic plaster that kept water from leaking through the walls. There are window openings near the ceiling, indicating that the cistern, which also functioned as the substructure of a building, was partially above the ground level.
Binbirdirek Cistern was a crucial part of the water supply system of Byzantine Constantinople. As it was located in a densely populated region of the city, it was built in response to the water required by the crowded population in the vicinity. It was on a different water supply line than the nearby Basilica Cistern, as it was around 18 meters higher in elevation. It was supplied by the same line as the Valen line, which was the longest aqueduct system of the Roman world. Once in the city, this line crossed the Aqueduct of Valens, before turning south towards the Forum of Theodosius, proceeding along the Mese (Constantinople’s main street), and terminating at Binbirdirek Cistern at the eastern end of the Second Hill. Binbirdirek Cistern thus functioned as a castellum divisorium, a water storage facility at the end of a water supply line that distributed water to a given area.
A special thanks to Dr. Kerim Altuğ for help writing the text
is a common Mason’s Mark
From the Nicholas V. Artamonoff Collection
Photo by Guillaume Berggren (1870)
Photo by Sebah & Joaillier
Drawing by Thomas Allom (1836)
Mark Twain’s description of the cistern from The Innocents Abroad (1869):
“We visited the Thousand and One Columns. I do not know what it was originally intended for, but they said it was built for a reservoir. It is situated in the centre of Constantinople. You go down a flight of stone steps in the middle of a barren place, and there you are. You are forty feet under ground, and in the midst of a perfect wilderness of tall, slender, granite columns, of Byzantine architecture. Stand where you would, or change your position as often as you pleased, you were always a centre from which radiated a dozen long archways and colonnades that lost themselves in distance and the sombre twilight of the place.”
Drawing by W.H. Bartlett (1838)
Forchheimer & Strzygowski
Reconstruction by Wulzinger
Forchheimer & Strzygowski
Plan by Forchheimer & Strzygowski
Map of the Byzantine Cisterns of Constantinople
The nearby Cağaloğlu Cistern consists of the remains of a massive wall located a short distance north of the Mese. Part of its eastern wall, which is 90 meters long, can still be seen from the west side of Bab-ı Ali Street near Cağaloğlu Anatolian High School. This wall, which perhaps dates to the 5th century, consists of alternate bands of rough mortared rubble and bricks. It was originally suggested it might be the remains of Severan Walls of Byzantium. However excavations in 1968 revealed that the wall went 14 meters deep without reaching the bottom, leading to its identification as the eastern wall of a huge open cistern. The identity of this cistern is unknown, but it might be the Cistern of Philoxenos–or perhaps the Theodosius Cistern or the Cisterna Maksima–all of which are known to have been in the general vicinity.
Possible depiction of cistern (in top right corner)
From 16th century engraving by Onofrio Panvinio
Hypothetical plan by Bardill
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Water Supply (Nicholas V. Artamonoff Collection)