Istanbul’s Basilica Cistern

Stepping down the wooden staircase a draft of cool air hits one’s face with a refreshing rush. Above ground, Istanbul may be hot and heavy or cold and rainy, but dropping into the Basilica Cistern is like entering the womb. It’s not too hot or too cold, the dim light calms and the swishing sound of water is reminiscent of amniotic fluid. All that is needed to complete the uterine experience is to be cramped in a tiny sack.

Classical music—piped in from overhead—adds to the mysterious atmosphere of a stroll along wooden walkways above dark water. Carp appear and disappear as they swim through pools of light and back into the shadows. Tourists lean against the railings, gazing into the unknown depths below or walk slowly about, taking their time to investigate this odd world. Everyone agrees (without saying a word) that this is a place for hushed voices and murmured comments.

Basilica Cistern in Turkey

Basilica Cistern in Istanbul, Turkey

The Basilica Cistern (also called Yerebatan Sarayi) is the largest of several hundred ancient cisterns pocking the Istanbul underground. Built in 532 AD by the Byzantine emperor, Justinian, the cistern once held 80,000 cubic meters of water—enough water to fill 83 Olympic sized swimming pools and still have a little left over. Fortunately, the water level was dropped significantly, so modern tourists can wander around without having to swim.

Justinian’s workers were great recyclers, the vaulted ceiling is held up with 336 Corinthian columns, capitals and plinths scavenged from other buildings around the empire. Each one is different, and when looking down the 143-foot length of the room, the twelve rows of columns allow an infinite perspective.

Tucked into a back corner, two columns are upheld by blocks carved with Medusa’s head. One is upside down, the other lay on its side. The origin of these heads is a mystery as is much of Medusa herself.

Medusa Column in Basilica Cistern

A Stone Medusa head holds up a column in the Basilica Cistern in Istanbul, Turkey.

Everyone knows the Greek myth in which one look from the Gorgon Medusa turned a person to stone, but looking back a bit further reveals that Medusa wasn’t always the nasty man-killer the Greeks made her out to be.

Medusa was imported to Greece from Libya where she was worshipped as the destroyer aspect of a triple goddess. She represented female mysteries, cycles of time, cycles of nature (life, death, rebirth) and the untamable forces of life. No wonder the Greeks were scared.

With the side of her face press firmly against the floor, one stone Medusa stares out wisely at the tourists snapping photos. Algae lends a greenish cast to her marble skin and the snakes coil and twine around her head. Her lips hold an almost-smile, all-knowing and all seeing. She penetrates our illusions and looks into the abyss of truth.

The weeping column is not far from the twin Gorgons. The column is big enough that a person couldn’t wrap their arms around it, and slippery from the algae and water that coat it. Swirling eye-like designs cover the pillar, and just below shoulder level is a hole.

Custom dictates that you put your thumb in the hole and rotate your hand while making a wish. If your thumb comes out damp, then the wish will come true. One after another, people insert their thumb into the worn opening and rotate their hand all the way around to the left, fingers tracing the marble smoothed by so many other hands. Then they rotate their hand to the right and make a wish. Since so many others have gone before, everyone’s thumb comes out dry.

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