The cistern was built by Emperor Justinian in the basement of a large porticoed building, the Basilikè, after the fire of the latter during the Nika Sedition in 532.
The name of this underground structure comes from a large public square in the Capitol of Constantinople, the Stoa of the Basilica, under which it was originally built (other sources indicate that it comes from a basilica built earlier in the same site). According to ancient historians, the emperor Constantine I the Great built a structure that was later reconstructed and enlarged by the Emperor Justinian after the disturbances of Niká in 532.
Procope of Caesarea describes at length in the Buildings the reconstruction of the Basilikè and the reasons for the development of this vast cistern:
"Deepening this place and one of the porticoes, the one facing south, the Emperor Justinian created a suitable reservoir for the summer containing the overabundant waters of other seasons." ( Buildings, I, xi, 14-16)
In this respect, Procope underlines the great seasonal variations in the flow of the aqueduct, a characteristic that made it necessary to dig numerous underground cisterns in Constantinople to store water in the winter for the summer season.
The cistern provided water for the Grand Palace of Constantinople and other buildings on the Capitol, and continued to supply water to the Topkapi Palace after the Ottoman conquest in 1453 and in modern times. The palace gardens were irrigated with Yerebatan water until a system of its own was built. The Ottomans preferred running water than water stored for what was left to use towards the end of the fourteenth century. In the middle of the sixteenth century the Dutch researcher P. Gyllus (who was in the city between 1544 and 1550) discovered the existence of the cistern after investigating the stories of some neighbors who pointed out that in some houses there were wells in the cellars where they extracted water and, sometimes, fish. Gyllus discovered the access stairs and made a study about the monument he published in his travel book. In the middle of the 19th century, it was restored after being used as a lumberyard.
Between 1985 and 1987 it was cleaned (50,000 tons of clay were removed) and it was restored by preparing it for the tourist visit, providing it with a series of walkways almost at water level (which is kept low) so that visitors could walk around the whole monument and access the columns on whose base the Jellyfish are sculpted.