Things to do in Istanbul

The Basilica Cistern’s Medusa Heads: Theories, Legends, and the Legacy of Byzantine Architecture

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The Basilica Cistern, also known as the Sunken Palace, is a stunning example of Byzantine engineering and architecture. Built in the 6th century during the reign of Emperor Justinian I, this underground water reservoir was designed to provide water to the Great Palace of Constantinople and the Hagia Sophia.

The cistern's interior is mesmerizing, with 336 marble columns supporting the weight of the cistern's vaulted ceiling, adorned with intricate brick patterns. However, the most intriguing features of the Basilica Cistern are the two Medusa heads that serve as the base for two of the columns.

There are many theories about the origin of these Medusa heads and their placement within the cistern. In this blog, we’ll discuss some of these theories and understand the significance of these mysterious Medusa heads.

Recommended tickets to Basilica Cistern

The Columns of the Basilica Cistern

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The Basilica Cistern is supported by a total of 336 marble columns, each measuring approximately 9 meters (30 feet) in height. These columns are arranged in 12 rows of 28 columns each, creating a symmetrical and visually stunning interior. The columns were sourced from ancient temples and buildings, resulting in diverse styles and designs. Some columns feature ornate Corinthian capitals, while others showcase simpler Ionic or Doric designs.

The Basilica Cistern features three notable columns. The Weeping Column, adorned with peacocks, drooping branches, and tree leaves, honors the memory of the hundreds of slaves who died during the cistern's 38-year construction. In the northwest corner, two column bases display carved blocks depicting the face of Medusa.

Medusa heads in the Basilica Cistern

The discovery of the Medusa heads in the Basilica Cistern is a fascinating story. These intriguing carved blocks were uncovered during the restoration work carried out by the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality between 1985 and 1987. It's incredible to think that these Medusa heads had been hidden away for centuries, waiting to be rediscovered. Their unique placement and mysterious origins have made them a symbol of the cistern and a must-see for visitors. But how did they even get here? And why are the Medusa Heads upside down? Let’s look at some of the popular theories:

Theory 1: Romans Inverted Medusa to Assert Dominance

According to a few historians, the Medusa heads in the Basilica Cistern are believed to have been removed from the Forum of Constantine since similar ones have been spotted there too. The theory proposes that the Romans intentionally placed the Medusa head upside-down to humiliate Pagan gods. In contrast, the ancient Greeks (Hellenes) often incorporated Medusa statues in their sacred places, believing that Medusa would protect these sites from evil. In fact, you can find stunning examples of protective Medusa statues in the Temples of Apollo at Delphi and Didyma. The inverted positioning of the Medusa head in the Basilica Cistern may have been a deliberate act by the Romans to assert their religious dominance over the conquered Greek territories and their Pagan beliefs.

Theory 2: Recycled Relics

The Medusa heads in the Basilica Cistern may have been repurposed from a previous building, possibly serving as architectural elements such as parts of an arch or frieze. The workers constructing the cistern likely recognized these sculpted blocks as suitable materials for supporting the columns, regardless of their artistic value. The heads may have originated from a ruined structure, like Constantine's Gate. This hypothesis remains unverifiable though. Alternatively, they could have been part of an unfinished project, as evidenced by a similar block with heads 3 and 4, preserved in the Istanbul Archaeological Museum.

Theory 3: Cost-cutting or Christian Dominance

A third and most compelling theory suggests that the Medusa heads were recycled from various parts of the city during the construction of the Basilica Cistern. After the devastating Nika riots, Emperor Justinian I embarked on a massive rebuilding project, repurposing Pagan architecture across Constantinople as a cost-effective solution. As a devout Christian, Justinian sought to eradicate Paganism, enforcing legal reforms that prohibited Pagan practices and promoted Chalcedonian Orthodoxy. The Medusa heads, likely sourced from different locations across the Empire, served a dual purpose: they provided necessary construction materials. They allowed Justinian to assert his religious beliefs by incorporating Pagan imagery in a subservient manner. The lack of uniformity among the cistern's columns further supports this theory of widespread recycling.

Basilica Cistern Medusa