Underground Archaeology: A Cistern Picture

Basilica Cistern, Istanbul

Hidden for years under the streets of Istanbul’s historic Sultanahmet district, the waters of the Basilica Cistern lapped undisturbed against the base of Corinthian marble columns. This Byzantine-era engineering feat was lost to public knowledge when the city was taken over by the Ottoman Turks, and remained unknown until citizens of the modern Turkish republic reported catching fish through holes in their basements. That was just a few decades ago; today carp still swim through the water at the base of the pillars.

This scene was pretty difficult to photograph because there is very low light underground in the cistern, and tripods are not allowed. Still, I wanted a DOF that would bring all the columns into focus. In the end, I balanced the camera on top of a railing, underexposed by maybe half a stop to match the actual lighting, and set the self-timer for a 20 second exposure. Fortunately, there weren’t too many people around to shake the railing. I got really ambitious after that and tried to bracket three exposures for an HDR image, but that didn’t work out so well.

Canon EOS Rebel XTi, ISO-400, Tv=20 sec., f/13.0


  1. bobbywashere September 13, 2008

    What a mad story about the underground of Istanbul, Very nice image and well light under the circumstances…would be good to see pics of the fish…


  2. Discover Unearthed October 14, 2008

    I was here a couple of years ago and didn’t manage to capture it anything like as well as this – was left with a very grainy image on slide film. I did think that (if it wasn’t so historically important) this place would make an AMAZING nightclub or bar, with the water lit different colours…. anyone with me?!

  3. anatolianimage October 14, 2008

    Totally with you on the atmosphere. Actually they have a coffee shop with tables down there now, plastic stretched tastefully overhead so you don’t get dripped on. Spooky sufi flute music plays everywhere … it’s a little different from the nightclub scene, but maybe more inspiring.

  4. sultanahmet October 8, 2009

    Basilica Cistern was great.
    Sultanahmet was great.
    I will be back same place.

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