BASILICA CISTERN (YEREBATAN SARAYI) AND MEDUSA HEAD
YEREBATAN SARAYI, THE BASILICA CISTERN AND THE MEDUSA HEAD
One of the most mysterious and must see places in Istanbul is the Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Sarayi) and the nearby cistern of Philoxenos (Binbirdirek Sarnici). Since the first time they were dug under the ground fifteen centuries ago, several civilizations and reigns were built on top of these cisterns that included: hippodromes, palaces, roads, squares,churches, mosques, fountains and cemeteries. All of these above ground structures were ruined at one time or another and then reconstructed over and over again.
The horsedrawn carriages gave way to the automobiles and tramways along the Mese street of Byzantium( later called DivanYolu by Ottomans); but, the two cisterns underneath stayed the same for centuries. When Emperor Justinian built the Basilica cistern, the reservoir held eighty thousand tons of water, it was like a huge underground pool in an area bigger than a football field (140/70 m). It was braced with three hundred and thirty six carved columns, and a habitat to many swimming carp. The Byzantines had built this cistern to protect themselves from the endless invaders of the foreign armies, as well as to provide water supply for the daily needs of the city.
After Sultan Mehmet the II. conquered the city, the cistern was unnoticed or neglected on purpose, since according to Ottomans tradition and belief -only running water was acceptable. Only after the second palace of the Ottomans, Topkapi Sarayi was built, the water of the cistern was put to use in watering the gardens of the palace. As far as the clean water for homes as well as for the Topkapi Palace, that came from the Belgrad Ormanlari(Woods of Belgrade) on Bosphorus through newly built aqueducts and dams, like the one emperor Valance had built earlier.The Ottomans also built a water distribution center in Taksim, to distribute the water to the city,hence the famous square of Istanbul at the end of Rue de Pera derived it’s name from this building, ‘taksim”‘meaning partition.
The first ten years of my life was mostly spent in two districts of Istanbul; Uskudar in the Anatolian Peninsula and Kocamustafapasa on the European side of the historic peninsula. In the Kocamustafapasa district there was no water shortage compared to other parts of Istanbul. My extended maternal family members lived here, in a three story wooden manse, where on every floor water was flowing from the fountains without any interruption. The water was coming from a nearby lake called Terkos and mostly used for daily necessities like washing dishes, doing laundry, and taking a bath. I remember my grandmother saying, “ turn on the Terkos” instead of “water”, just like she always said, “ turn off the “ gas”, instead of “electric”, since they only had gas lamps in her childhood. On the bottom floor of the manor, next to the kitchen ,there was a hamam room- a Turkish bath. In the hamam there was a kurna on the floor- a round sink without a water drain, made of marble, and a wood burning stove, to heat the water in the reservoir. To bathe, one would take the hot water in a copper bowl from the kurna and pour it over your head and use a square shaped soap,Hadji Sakir, to cleanse. The drinking water was another story. It was brought by the “sucu” or the water salesman, who brought it into the home in carboys, then poured it into a big clay pot and covered it with a cheesecloth. From this clay container the drinking water was transferred with a tin masrapa or tankard to a surahi- a carafe and finally served at the dinner table. Also in the gardens, there was a dried up well, the top was covered with a heavy rock. Apparently, the water was used at one time for daily necessities and for watering the garden before Terkos. Another interesting thing in the garden was the water pots ,dug into the cement from the larger size to the smaller, numbering five or seven( I don’t remember exactly),and all of them wıth a round top made of tin and a handle to lift it. These were probably also used before Terkos, the ciıty water that was connected to our home for the daily necessities and for the vegetables growing in the back yard.
The Basilica Cistern had of course influenced people's thinking of how to utilize and reserve water for centuries, but when I saw the cistern, for the first time in my life, in the summer of 1985 , from the outside, it was unimpressive. First, I had to go down from a little brick building, using wooden stairs to a platform by the water in the underground. Except for the dim light coming from a few lamps, inside the cistern was fairly dark; and the bottoms of the columns were covered with slime and mud. A small kayik with a kayikci,(boatman) was waiting there to take one for a boat trip through the columns of the cistern into the dark and unknown; but most people preferred to skip this trip. Nothing compares to the present, where one can walk along the yellow and green illuminated,concrete walkways that interconnect with the columns, and listen to the sounds of Beethoven’s Symphony number five echoing throughout the still waters of the cistern.
During the same years the other cistern nearby,the Cistern of Philoxenos or the Binbir Direk Sarnici (Cistern of One thousand and one columns )-as it’s Turkish name translates, is not open to the public. If one were lucky enough to find the entrance of the cistern, he would ask the children playing around there to find the guard. The guard, in return for a small fee, would open the lock at the wooden door and take one down the alley leading into this dried out cistern with actually 224 marble columns (not 1,001),dating back to fourth century A.D.. The Philoxenos cistern, through its Ottoman history, was used for purposes other than what it was intended for; at times as the “dungeon of 1001 columns”, at other times as a weaving workshop or a storage depot.
Right before the millennium both of these cisterns, first the Basilica, went through major renovation projects; and as a result they became the popular tourist attractions they are today. First, thousands of tons of mud was removed from the cistern, followed by building walkways, where tourist could easily walk between the columns without getting scared ,and then the path was illuminated with colorful lights imitating a sunset . Secondly, speaker systems were cleverly hidden behind and around the columns, playing classical music, the tunes reflecting from the ceiling of the cistern and bringing the visitors to a pleasant and mystique experience. A few years later, Emperor Constantine’s cistern of 1001 columns was renovated and opened to tourists with its cafes, restaurants, gift shops and tv broadcasting stations for popular Turkish TV programs like 5 N 1 K .
One of the biggest attractions within the Basilica Cistern are the two Medusa Heads used as base for two of the columns. One of these huge busts lays sideways in the water and the other one upside down. According to Greek mythology, Medusa was a very beautiful and young girl ;and all women, including the goddess of wisdom, Athena, were jealous of her beauty. One day not being able to resist his feelings Poseidon, the God of the Seas, slept with Medusa in the palace of Athena. Athena became angry and ordered Perseus, the legendary founder of Mycenae, to kill Medusa. When Perseus beheaded Medusa, out of her head came first, her children from Poseidon, followed by snakes.
According to legend , whoever looked at Medusa’s stone head would turn into stone himself. One of the things I feared, when I was a young child, was this turning into stone scare. Above the ground, from the Basilica cistern, where the Medusa head sits upside down at the ancient Hippodrome in the Sultanahmet Square, there is also an Egyptian Obelisk with its stone base carved with adult and children figures. As children we were told,or made to believe, that these children in stone were the consequence of them raising their hand against their parents; and maybe because of this belief, the Byzantines turned Medusa’s head upside down to protect themselves from this mishap of becoming a stone.
Istanbul is full of this type of places, under or above ground where people lived, or used for one reason or another, for centuries. And as long as the city exists these places are going to be subjects for new books as well as legends and myths.