When you descend the steps of the Basilica Cistern, you immediately notice the temperature drops. The cool, damp air envelops you and the hair stands up across your arms. The stairs wind down and finally you enter into the dark cavernous recess. For a few minutes you are blinded by the total absence of light and when your eyes finally adjust to the dark you find yourself thinking, “How did someone loose a palace this large?”
The Cistern was built in the 6th century by Emperor Justinian to supply fresh water to the royal palace of Constantinople. It was lost and forgotten until 1545 when a scholar researching Byzantine antiquities discovered the magnificent structure by accident. He had heard rumors that villagers were drawing up fresh water and huge fish from beneath the floors of their homes.
Natural curiosity drove him to seek the truth of the stories and he stumbled onto one of the most fantastic hidden treasures of the ancient world. Stretching the length of three footballs fields, the sunken palace is larger than life.
While the Cistern is an overwhelming feat of architectural genius, the most fascinating feature to see in the underground structure are the two Medusa heads whose unusual placement have lead to speculation. The most famous of the gorgons lies in an upside down position while her sister is in a recumbent sideways position.
One theory is that they were placed there by orders of Justinian as an insult to the old Gods the other that they were merely pieces of rubbish laying around that were the perfect size for the columns needed to support the cistern. I am inclined to agree with the second theory because most of the 336 other columns were discovered to have been taken as salvage from a nearby Roman temple.
For whatever reason, the snake haired Medusas have found themselves sleeping quietly underground for over 1500 years. We can only be thankful that they have been preserved for eternity far below the bustling city above them.
Although the Cistern is now drained of its waters so that repairs can be done on the walls and ceilings, it is no less breathtaking to behold. Of all the mythical places to visit in Istanbul, this is definitely a do not miss.