Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Byzantine Cistern

Today Richie and I visited the Basilica Cistern in Sultanahmet. This underground cistern was built during Byzantine times in the 500s or 600s AD. It was quite amazing. Luckily, pictures can show much better than I can describe it. I love to see buildings and things like this. I can't help but be amazed that hundreds or even thousands of years ago, people were creating such beautiful architecture, despite having much more limited technology available than we do. Also, it is sort of humbling and awe-inspiring to be in such ancient places and to think of how many generations of people lived and died here, and how many layers of history are evident wherever we go.

This stone pillar marked the official centre of the Byzantine Empire. All distances in the empire were measured from this point.

This is the remains of what was once a Roman triumphal arch.

Here are pictures from inside the cistern. There were hundreds of columns, and these were brought from all over the Greek and Roman world. It was fed by aqueducts and stored the water used by the Emperor's palace. Its pretty huge!

This is called the peacock column because of the design carved into the stone. One story connected to the column is that the carvings are shaped like tears, and symbolize the suffering of all the slaves who built the cistern. Very melancholy.

There are tons of fish swimming in the couple of feet of water in the cistern. Some of them are huge! I wonder what they eat? Here are a bunch in the 'wishing well' next to the peacock column.

These are two gorgon heads at the base of two of the columns. Apparently there are two stories about Medusa the Gorgon. In one, the Gorgons are three sisters. Medusa is the one who had snakes for hair and turned anyone who looked at her to stone. In another story, Medusa was a beautiful woman, who was always boasting about her black eyes and beautiful hair. She was in love with the hero Perseus. However, goddess Athene was also in love with Perseus, and was jealous of Medusa. So, Athene turned Medusa's hair into snakes and made it so that anyone she looked at turned to stone. I imagine that this greatly reduced her chances with Perseus. Eventually, in both stories, Perseus kills Medusa by cutting off her head. Then he uses her head to overcome many of his enemies by turning them to stone by showing them Medusa's head.

Since the Gorgons were creatures of the underground, images of them were placed in underground places, such as this cistern, to protect the structure. Their heads are placed sideways or upside down so that the people looking at them won't turn to stone.


  1. Interesting....what if someone turns their head to the side or upside down and looks at the Gorgon? Do they turn into stone then??

    Great pics :-)

  2. Good question. I don't want to be the one to find out! You never know!