Lighting Focus - Shedding light on history

The concept for the new lighting for Istanbul’s Byzantine-era Basilica Cistern is rooted in the narrative of the ancient structure that stretches back to the 6th century.

Edited By Jill Entwistle


Client Department of Cultural Heritage, Greater Municipality of Istanbul (IBB),
Lighting design Studioillumina, principal: Adriano Caputo and design team leader Federica Cammarota
Architects and project management  Atelye70, Istanbul, and Studio di Architettura e Ingegneria Insula, Rome
Custom fittings and Electricals TEPTA Lightingk

CONSTRUCTED BY the Emperor Justinian in 532, the ancient Basilica Cistern in Istanbul is the oldest and largest of the water reserves beneath the Turkish city. For what is ostensibly a utilitarian facility, it is an extraordinary and otherworldly space. Known in Turkish as the sunken palace (Yerebatan Sarnici), it has been used, not surprisingly, as a film set for a scene in the 1963 James Bond film From Russia with Love.

Measuring 140m long by 70m (almost 10,000 sq m), and featuring 336 columns each 9m high, its perimeter walls are 4m thick and bricked with waterproof mortar, designed to hold 80m litres of water.

The cistern was fed by the Valente aqueduct, and provided water for the imperial palace and its surroundings, supplying the Topkapi Palace until the 15th century. Forgotten throughout the Middle Ages, it was rediscovered by chance in the 16th century, but only opened to the public in 1987. Since 2018 it has been closed for renovation and was reopened last year with new and reconfigured walkways, and a specially designed lighting system.

There is always the potential pitfall of son et lumiere kitsch with such a structure, but the lighting by Studioillumina is sensitive, subtle and meaningful. Principal Adriano Caputo, together with project leader Federica Cammarota, managed a team of former university students specialising in scenography, interior and lighting design. The concept is rooted in telling the story of the cistern, enlightening the visitor on a journey through the space.

Constructed by Byzantine Emperor Justinian I in 532CE, the Basilica Cistern has stood the test of time

Conceptually, like the city above, it combines East and West, the Roman and Ottoman traditions and cultures. To describe the coexistence of the two worlds, Studioillumina decided to celebrate the different traditions with visual representation: the Oriental world, with its typical twodimensional drawings and historical miniatures, and the Western world, based on the use of perspective and threedimensionality. These two approaches to visualisation are translated into two different lighting techniques.

‘This way the cistern gives light to, but is also lit by, the two cultures which built and lived it,’ says Cammarota, who describes the scheme as a ‘sublime narration of emotions and light’.

The lighting design involved in-depth study of the history of the cistern’s architecture, the societies and cultures that interacted with it, and the people who rediscovered it, says Eugenio Cipollone, founder of architect Insula. ‘These multiple cultural identities became the guide of the lighting concept, with the aim of conveying their stories to the visitor.’

‘From a creative point of view it had a strongly spiritual dimension, dictated by the history and identity of the place, which led the concept design process to explore deeply in the space of ideas,’ says Cammarota. ‘We always say that for each lighting project a story can be told, yet for some projects this is truer than for others.’

Through the lighting of the columns, the visitor’s journey is divided into three consecutive stages. The outward journey is reminiscent of entering a forest, the columns revealed only by backlighting, inspired by the Eastern tradition in which perspective does not have a central importance, but ‘tends to disappear to make room for design and shapes’. The effect is achieved by a single elliptical beam projector, positioned on the opposite side of the direction of travel, uplighting each column. The brightness levels are also gradually decreased as visitors walk into the underground space, creating the feeling of ‘an almost archaeological and personal exploration of the cistern’, says Cammarota.

The Medusas – the famous inverted gorgon heads which form the base of two of the pillars in the north-west corner – represent the end of the outward journey and the beginning of the return journey. In lighting terms, the modelling signifies the two-dimensional and threedimensional worlds blending together. With the same elliptical beam projectors now on the same side as the direction of travel, perspective is brought into play, and the structural and architectural details are modelled in three dimensions.

Colour also plays a subtle role in the scheme. Every four minutes of the journey, the lighting on the columns dissolves, giving way to submerged grazing lights that reveal the original uneven floors and the bases of all columns by painting them in an aquamarine colour. After another minute, the vaults are lit in an amber colour. The two hues are carefully chosen, based on the colours of zultanite, the Anatolian gem that changes its colour from turquoise/aquamarine to amber when exposed to the flickering light of a torch.

More than 750 bespoke fittings by Tepta Lighting were used in the scheme.

The ancient design evokes an almost otherworldly feel which is now enhanced by the new lighting plan

‘We translated emotions into light effects, for example by gradually dimming the lighting on the columns as you enter the cistern, in order to recreate the sensation of discovery of an unknown dark space where natural light decreases as you proceed deep into it,’ says Cammarota. ‘The journey inside the cistern is also accomplished in this way, by rediscovering it many times with different eyes.’


  • The Basilica Cistern restoration was part of a 10-year multi-project collaboration between the Atelye70 studio of Istanbul and Insula of Rome.
  • The old reinforced concrete walkway was demolished and the visitor’s journey redesigned, and is now around 350m long and covers an area of 1,400 sq m. The new walkway, which has a width of 1.3m to 3m, runs on light metal structures close to the base of the monument, creating the impression for visitors of walking almost on the surface of the water.
  • The route winds like a ring and is designed ‘in such a way as to give the visitor the sensation of walking through an infinite sequence’. Starting from one of the two short sides, where the entrance and exit stairs are located, the walkway crosses the space until reaching the opposite short side, where the famous upturned Medusa heads are located. From there, the route winds its way back to the starting point. On the return route, a platform for holding events was also built at the request of the municipality.

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