Saturday, July 18, 2015

The Basilica Cistern, Constantinople

The Basilica Cistern in Constantinople, located next to the imposing Church of Saint Sophia, was constructed in the 6th century during the reign of Emperor Justinian. It is one of the most delightful and in many respects magical treasures in the city. Amazingly preserved, despite centuries of conflict and siege, the cistern was built 532 AD in order to store fresh water for the palace and nearby buildings. Nicknamed Yearbatan Sarayi, or “The Sunken Palace” in Turkish, it is known in English as the “Basilica Cistern” because of its location on the site of an ancient basilica.

The Basilica Cistern is 70 m. in width and 140 m. in length. The dome, covering an area of 9800 m2, is supported by 336 marble columns arranged in 12 rows, each consisting of 28 columns, placed at a distance of 4m 90 cm from one another. The columns, which support the whole underground Basilica Cistern, follow mainly the Corinthian styles, with the exception of a number of Doric columns. The Cistern’s water was provided from the Belgrade Woods, 19 Km North of the city, via aqueducts built by Emperor Justinian.

The two giant Gorgon-head pillar bases at the far end of the cistern are an intriguing mystery. It is suspected that they may have been pulled out of an older pagan temple, where motifs of the famous Gorgon Medusa were used as a protective emblem. It is possible that the placement of these two faces – upside down and sideways, at the base of pillars – may have been a deliberate display of the power of the new Christian Empire. Or it’s possible that the stones were just the right size. According to another theory, the Medusas and some columns found in the cistern came from the Temple of Artemis in Asia Minor, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

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