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Tuesday, July 21, 2015


FOREVER UNDERGROUND--Myth says the only way mortals are safe from the deadly gaze of Medusa is while she reposes upside down as seen in Istanbul's Basilica Cistern.

Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia is easily one of this ancient city’s most iconic sites, yet another equally magnificent treasure of antiquity is hidden away from the everyday world with only a few steps separating both.

Main entrance in Istanbul's Old City
Of course, we’re referring to the Basilica Cistern Yerebatan Sarnici located beneath the oldest part of Turkey’s largest city.  This subterranean cistern system was constructed by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian (527-565) to provide drinking water for his nearby Topkapi Imperial Palace and other nearby residents. 

When the Ottoman’s took power in 1453, they installed their own running water system and for many centuries the cistern was forgotten.

Pillar to Post
By Thomas Shess
Visited January, 2015
Built atop the site where a church or basilica once stood, the cistern, reused many of the
Marble columns from the area.  That is why many of the 336 support columns have different capitals mainly Corinthian and Doric.  When fully operational the 10,000 square meter cistern held 100,000 tons of water.

During the years 1544-47, French born scientist and topographer Petrus Gyllius spent time in Constantinople searching for ancient manuscripts.  Francis I of France had sent him there.  He became curious that citizens were emerging from holes in the earth near the Hagia Sophia with buckets of water and even fish.  In the rear of a nearby house, he discovered stairs leading down into the abandoned cistern.  With much effort he was able to carry a small boat into the cistern.  There he toured the cistern in his boat and discovered many of the columns, including those with the upside-down stone heads of Medusa.

After Gyllius returned to France and published his findings, the world to this day is fascinated with the Basilica Cistern. 

Many restorations to the underground complex have been made over the centuries. The most recent being between 1985-87, when 50,000 tons of mud were removed and walking platforms were installed for visitors.

Today, the cistern is a museum complete with shops, exhibits, tour guides and food galleries.

Ancient Byzantine world under the streets of modern Istanbul
Recent visit.
The cistern is on Yerebatan Street, a few steps from the front door of the Hagia Sophia Hotel, where our Washington DC-based VIP Tours spent several days.  Our schedule was so busy that we almost ran out of time to visit the subterranean wonder.

Long lines every time we walked by the cistern was another reason we waited so long to make our visit.  But just before closing time we found no lines as we purchased tickets and entered.

Despite the underground site being clean and well lit, there is an eeriness that engulfs visitors while descending the 55-steps.  First, you notice the wet brick ceiling supported by 336 marble pillars, each nine feet tall.  Next, you see puddles on the floor that are fed from cracks in the vaulted ceiling.  The dim lighting in green and gold tones adds beauty to the surroundings.

Along, a wooden platform you glance over the handrails into the two feet of water covering the entire cistern.  Fish--of all sizes--dash from shadow to shadow.

Ahead you notice a large carved statue.  Closer and you see plainly it is a large upside-down head carved from stone.

Signs in Turkish and English reveal the two Medusa heads are used as plinths in the Southwestern part of the cistern.  My guess is we are now walking directly under the hotel, where we’re staying.

Researchers, who are not swayed by the Medusa myth, believe the heads were scavenged from other Roman sites during construction.

If you follow the myths surrounding Greek and Roman Gods, you’ll know the upside-down placement of the heads is in keeping with the antidote for Medusa’s deadly stare.  If Medusa is held upside-down her stare will not turn you to stone.  The fact that Medusa is in the cistern-twice means she stared into the mirror and each time turned herself into marble.

We stared at Medusa anyway until the guards came.

It was closing time.


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