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?


Jacqueline Seewald said...

Quite beautiful! Thanks for sharing this with us.

Joyce Elson Moore said...

Jacqueline: Thanks for stopping by. Curious about the Medusa heads isn't it? I still think Justinian's wife told him to recycle the Roman columns.

P. M. Doolan said...

I visited Istanbul in June and your post brought back good memories, thank you. I found it very difficult to take good photos of the cistern and the Medusa heads. I just published an essay that might interest you on my blog - it concerns the historical novel "Count Belisarius", written in 1938 by Robert Graves and set in 6th century Byzantium during the reign of Justinian.