Over the years, Lara Croft has visited dozens of archaeologically fascinating places but not all of them have been particularly glamorous. One such place that instantly springs to mind is the Cistern in Tomb Raider 1.

When I first started playing Tomb Raider back in 1996, I bought myself a copy of the Prima official strategy guide to help me get through the game; Stella’s Walkthroughs wasn’t around back then. While flicking through the pages, I noticed that one of the levels set in Greece was called “The Cistern”. Rather stupidly, I assumed it would have something to do with toilets as I wasn’t yet familiar with the other type of cistern, those subterranean reservoirs used to store water in ancient cities such as Alexandria and Constantinople.

The Cistern in Tomb Raider 1
A view of the Cistern in Tomb Raider. Image credit: Tomb Raider Chronicles.

Despite being better informed these days, the dank, mossy, rat-infested chambers still remind me more of an abandoned sewer system than anything else. And like St. Francis’ Folly, this is an entirely fictional location but could very well have been inspired by a real-life structure.

One of the most famous and most-visited cisterns in the world is the Basilica Cistern in Istanbul, one of the many ancient reservoirs that lie beneath the city’s streets. It is so named because it was originally built beneath the Stoa Basilica, the large public square that once served as one of the city’s commercial and legal centres.

The Basilica Cistern in Istanbul
The Basilica Cistern in Istanbul. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Also referred to as the “Sunken Palace” (Yerebatan Sarayı) or “Sunken Cistern” (Yerebatan Sarnıcı) and featured in Dan Brown’s novel Inferno, this underground reservoir was built in the 6th century as part of Emperor Justinian I’s efforts to ensure the Byzantine capital and its Great Palace had a reliable and plentiful supply of water. Its vast vaulted brick ceiling is supported by some 336 marble columns, including two columns whose bases bear carvings of the monstrous Medusa of Greek myth. It’s thought that it could store close to 100,000 tonnes of water.

Although it bears very little resemblance to the Cistern in the original game, it’s easier to spot some similarities in the abridged version Lara explores in Anniversary: the cross-vaulted ceilings, the towering pillars, the thick brick walls.  Perhaps it’s just sheer coincidence but it’s not hard to imagine how a level artist might have been inspired by a visit to Istanbul or that scene From Russia With Love. 

The Basilica Cistern was opened to the public in 1987 following a major clean-up and restoration works and it’s now one of Istanbul’s most popular tourist attractions, offering visitors respite from the oppressive summer heat and the chance to enjoy a refreshing cup of Turkish tea in its underground café.

The Cistern as seen in Tomb Raider: Anniversary
This underground reservoir got a radical makeover for Tomb Raider: Anniversary. Image credit: Katie’s Tomb Raider Screenshots.

Other, less famous examples can be found around the Mediterranean. Turkey is home to numerous ancient reservoirs, including the Theodosius Cistern and Cistern of Philoxenos in Istanbul, which were built in the early-mid 5th century, and Tekir Ambarı in Mersin Province. The Egyptian city of Alexandria is home to a vast network of underground cisterns and canals which date back to the Graeco-Roman period and are currently being studied by none other than Jean-Yves Empereur.

Other stunning examples can be found further west, including the Roman cisterns of Fermo, Italy, the Portuguese Cistern in El Jadida, Morocco, and the Moorish cistern in Cáceres, Spain.

So many cisterns to see and, luckily for us, there’s not a single rogue crocodile in sight.


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