Thursday, July 22, 2010

If You Love History. . .

One of the highlights of my recent London visit was to Westminster Abbey, the church in which many historical figures were married, crowned, and buried. The abbey is a virtual history of England, and to visit there was like walking into the past.

London Skyline from the Thames
Your ticket allows entry to almost every part of the abbey and grounds. Some of the more memorable sights in the abbey were the St. Edward Shrine, Henry VIII’s Lady Chapel, and the coronation chair used by Edward I in the 13th century (and by every succeeding monarch during the coronation ceremony).

Thousands of notables are buried at Westminster Abbey, from kings and statesmen to men of ordinary birth who later gained fame, such as Charles Dickens, George Frederic Handel, and Charles Darwin.

The Pyx chamber is one of the earliest parts of the abbey, and one that caught the eye of this medievalist. The chamber was built around 1070 and has low vaulted ceilings and tile floors, giving at a medieval feel. It was probably used as the treasury in the 13th century, and Henry III may have used it as a sacristy. In 1303 the treasury was stolen while the king was in Scotland. The abbot and monks were suspected and sent to the Tower, but were later released when the real culprit was identified and hung. After the theft, builders installed heavy double oak doors, which guard the entrance to this day. Inside the chamber are two large 13th century chests, emptied now of their valuables. Earlier, the Pyx Chamber held wooden boxes (pyxes) which contained coins of the realm. The coins awaited the recurring public demonstration, where a few coins were melted down to prove their purity.

I could have spent another full day or two in Westminster Abbey, but there were other places I needed to see, like the library I’ll blog about in my next post.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Medusa Heads and a Sinking Palace

Justinian, the 6th century Byzantine emperor, built a system of cisterns beneath the city of Constantinople, now Istanbul in Turkey. One of these cisterns, dubbed the “sinking palace” by locals, can be seen by visitors, and is unusual because the cistern itself resembles an abandoned palace. It is one of several hundred cisterns which lie beneath a thriving metropolis of trams and city streets.

The 336 Roman columns supporting the massive structure are what give the cistern the look of a palace hall, but the columns do not match, having been brought to the site by the builders, who confiscated them from Roman ruins throughout the city.

The columns support an area designed to hold 27 million gallons of water, which was piped in from twelve miles away through clay pipes and aqueducts.

Through the years, the pipes became clogged and the cistern fell into disuse. In the 15th century, a Dutch visitor to the city discovered the abandoned cistern when he noted that families were getting water from buckets dropped through holes in their basements. The citizens discovered the Roman columns and quickly realized they had a treasure beneath their city. A clean-up operation was begun, which unearthed a mystery.

Two marble Medusa heads are wedged beneath two of the columns. One head lies on its side, the other is upside down. There is disagreement as to why the heads were brought there. Some believe they were simply put there to elevate the two columns to the required height to match the others, but others believe the heads were taken there because of the Medusa legend, and the fact that statues of Medusa were said to protect a building from damage by attacking armies.

What is known is that we will never discover the truth about the Medusa heads, nor why an emperor would have condoned the use of recycled building materials for a project so vital to the city. Could it have been his wife, that much-maligned empress Theodora, who may have suggested recycling the Roman columns, thereby teaching the emperor a lesson in frugality?