Why an Istanbul site reminded me of Harry Potter

Under the streets of Istanbul, an enormous vault – held up by hundreds of columns, with minimal lighting and shallow water – reminds you of a serpent!

Written by Michael Turtle

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle. A journalist for more than 20 years, he's been travelling the world since 2011.

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle and has been travelling full time for a decade.


Basilica Cistern, Istanbul, Turkey

I couldn’t help it, you know. Think about Harry Potter, that is.

The books are set in England – I shouldn’t really have been finding associations here in Turkey, in a city like Istanbul with its influences of Eastern Europe and Asia.

But there was no denying it… it was all I could think about as I walked between the large stone columns.

You see, it was all about the name. I was under the streets of Istanbul, in an enormous dark and cavernous vault and I had flashes in my mind of a snake. A large snake.

Basilica Cistern, Istanbul, Turkey

Do you remember the enormous creature that is released in The Chamber of Secrets? No? That’s fine. I’ll remind you quickly.

It is a huge serpent, with a mouth large enough for a man (or a boy wizard), which emerges from a hole in an underground labyrinth and slithers through tunnels and around columns, splashing in the shallow water, trying to kill the intruder.

It’s called a Basilisk.

And so, there I was, in an underground labyrinth in Turkey with tunnels and columns and shallow water. And what was this cistern called?

The Basilica Cistern.

Does that word sound anything like a killer snake to you? Yep.

Basilica Cistern, Istanbul, Turkey
Basilica Cistern, Istanbul, Turkey

So that’s what I thought about a lot while I was underground.

The other main thing which kept occurring to me was how amazing the place looked.

The Basilica Cistern was built in the 6th century by about seven thousands slaves, according to the best evidence. It is 138 metres long and 64 metres wide and has a ceiling that is supported by 336 marble columns that are each about nine metres tall.

Basilica Cistern, Istanbul, Turkey

The whole thing was essentially a reservoir and filtration system for various palaces over the centuries. The water came from a source almost 20 kilometres away, along a series of aqueducts.

Although visiting it today shows only a small amount of water underneath the raised pathways, back in the days when Istanbul was Constantinople, much more of the cistern would have been used for water storage.

In the far corner, a long walk from the stone steps entrance, is one of the highlights – Medusa!

Well, her head carved into the base of two of the columns, at least. There’s no definite answer as to why they’re not the right way up but historians do agree that they were intentionally placed that way.

Basilica Cistern, Istanbul, Turkey
Basilica Cistern, Istanbul, Turkey

After the oppressive heat above the ground, it was nice to be down in the cool and dark vault. The only light was from the illumination of the columns, which glow like ancient firesticks.

It’s a fascinating part of the city – hidden away from obvious sight but worth hunting out during any visit.

There are some excellent tours of Istanbul that include the Basilica Cistern. If you’re interested, I would recommend one of the following:



Istanbul has some wonderful accommodation and you’ll be able to find whatever style you’re looking for.


For a backpacker option, I think Stay Inn Taksim is the perfect mix of comfort and atmosphere.


A good cheap and comfortable option is Meretto Hotel LALELİ.


For something a bit special, I would suggest the modern Hammamhane.


And if you’re looking for 5-star luxury, my ultimate favourite is Raffles Istanbul.

30 thoughts on “Why an Istanbul site reminded me of Harry Potter”

  1. Istanbul looks like such an amazing city…the cistern looks amazing. I really want to go there, but I am having a hard time talking my husband into it, There are just so many incredible things to see there (and I think I could get lots for days in the market).

    • However long you gave yourself in Istanbul, you would be able to fill it. There is so much to see and do in the city. The cistern doesn’t take very long and it’s right in the centre of town, so you’d easily be able to squeeze it in to any trip!

  2. What an amazing place. I certainly do get the correlation. Maybe with Medusa’s head not right side up you don’t turn into stone looking at it. You’re living proof of that.

    • That does make sense about the heads. All the literature I read said that they didn’t know why they weren’t upright. Maybe the historians don’t want to ‘guess’, even though what you say makes completely sense and seems like the obvious answer. I’m so glad you like it there too. It’s super cool!

  3. This. Is. Incredible.

    I can definitely see the likeness – any weird snakey-esque whisperings coming from the walls?

    I don’t know how I managed to miss this when I was in Istanbul.. At least it means I have a solid (Harry Potter based) reason to go back.

  4. I really enjoyed our time there, short as it was. Such a nice cool place to hang out during the heat up top. Did they have the plastic statue of what a sea monster might look like?

  5. I love Harry Potter, and I love Istanbul. You however, have done something I never thought to do and combined them both! What a fascinating, eerie, and at the same time beautiful building. Thanks for intoducing it to me.


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