The Basilica Cistern in Istanbul was one of our favorite attractions. The Roman emperor Justinian built this grand underground water storage system in the 6th century. Water was brought into the city via aqueducts and stored in the cistern. The elaborate cistern is 9800 square meters and its ceiling rests on 336 marble columns. The capitals of the columns are decorated in the Corinthian style, with the exception of a few Doric style columns. The cistern is surrounded by a firebrick wall that is 4 meters thick and is coated with a special mortar that insulates against water. Today the Basilica Cistern is open to the public for viewing. The cost is 20TL ($10) and the visit is well worth the money.
Upside Down Medusa Heads
One of the most interesting sites to see in the cistern are the two Medusa heads, which are located along the far wall. These two heads are amazing examples of the Roman-age sculpture from this period. They are preserved remarkably well, due to their placement in the cistern. No one really knows why the Medusa heads are in the cistern in the first place. The positioning of the heads is another topic of debate amongst scientists and historians.
One of the heads is placed upside down. There are various theories surrounding why her head was placed this way, but many believe that it was done to ward off evil spirits. Next to the upside-down head is another head depicting Medusa, which has been placed sideways. Why the two heads were placed in different directions has only served to deepen the mystery, but some think that placing the heads in the same direction would give rise to evil forces. Whatever the reasoning was for the placement of these heads, the thing that is interesting to me is the fact that these heads were historically submerged in water and are now only visible because the cistern is empty. These heads were never actually intended to be visible.
While we were in the cistern, we noticed that they had a “dress up” photo opportunity. With the total cost of only €5, we decided it was a must-do. The photographers take several pictures of your group. You get your choice of about 30 different shots. You can buy as many as you’d like or get two prints and the cd of images for €40. We opted for the silly photo, as our expressions were hilarious. The picture was definitely worth the €5 for the lasting memories of Sultan Brandon and his Harem.