Nestled beneath the winding streets of Istanbul, just 490 feet (149 meters) from the Hagia Sophia, lies an ancient cistern that may have been the final resting place of Medusa! The Basilica Cistern, also known as the Yerebatan Cistern, is the largest of several hundred ancient cisterns that sit under the city of Istanbul, designed to catch and hold rainwater. It is one of the most famous and impressive cisterns, not only in Turkey, but in the entire world. But could it really contain the sarcophagus of the Greek monster Medusa?
Did these two giant marble heads guard Medusa’s sarcophagus? Was it truly stolen by an Ottoman emperor? There are more questions than answers at this popular Istanbul tourist site. ( senerdagasan / Adobe Stock)
The Origins of the Basilica Cistern
The Basilica Cistern was built in the 6th century BC, during the reign of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I . At the time, the city was known as Constantinople and was part of the Eastern Roman Empire. The cistern got its name from the Basilica Stoa, or the Basilica Illus, that was once located above it. The Stoa Basilica was a large public square that was located on the first hill of Constantinople. This basilica stood between the 3rd and 4th centuries, during the early Roman Age, and was used as a commercial, legal, and artistic center. A reconstruction was commissioned by the Roman general Flavius Illus after a fire in 476 AD.
The original basilica was constructed during the reign of Constantine I (r. 306-337 AD), but was rebuilt on the orders of Justinian I following the Nika riots of 532 AD, which left the city in ruin. The basilica was rebuilt bigger and better, including the cistern. According to historical sources, the construction of this enormous cistern was completed by 7,000 slaves, and provided a water filtration system for the Great Palace of Constantinople.
The cistern is rectangular in shape, and measures around 138 x 65 meters (453 x 213 feet). This gave it a storage capacity of 100,000 tons. The ceiling is supported by 12 rows of 28 marble columns each, for a total of 336 columns. Each column is 9 meters (29.5 feet) high and is spaced 4.8 meters (15.7 feet) apart. The heads of these columns are made in different styles. Ninety eight of them are in the Corinthian style, while the rest are in the Dorian style. There are two columns in particular, however, shaped like giant Gorgon Medusa heads, that have piqued the interest of those with a more imaginative brain.
Interior of the Basilica Cistern / Yerebatan Cistern, with both Doric (more simple) and Corinthian (more ornate) column capital types shown ( Luciano Martula-LGM / Adobe Stock)
Rumors of Medusa’s Sarcophagus
Two huge Medusa heads are situated on two columns at the northwestern end of the cistern, and these are the reason many rumors surrounding the cistern have popped up. Much of the material used to reconstruct the cistern was brought from elsewhere in the aftermath of the Nika riots in 532 AD. Archaeologists have been able to identify where much of the material came from, but in the case of the Medusa heads, they have been unable to do so. Some have speculated, however, that they were brought to use as pillar supports during the construction of the cistern, and not added at a later date. It is also worth noting that a similar head, now at the Istanbul Archaeological Museums, was found at the Forum of Constantine, suggesting that these heads may have originated from the same place.
This huge keystone found in Çemberlitaş, Turkey may have belonged to a big arch at the Forum of Constantine. It matches the Medusa column supports at the Basilica Cistern, alleged site of the Medusa sarcophagus. (Gryffindor / CC BY SA 4.0 )
While researching the Medusa heads, a document was found that inspired fantastic ideas in the heads of researchers. The document was the diary kept by Sultan Abdul Hamid II, who ruled the Ottoman Empire from 1876 to 1909, and it tells a very interesting story. According to this document, a delegation was sent from Venice in 1456 to meet with Fatih Sultan Mehmet. They demanded to meet with the Sultan, but he chose to send the grand vizier in his place to meet with them. The delegation informed the vizier of a treasure located within the Basilica Cistern, but refused to tell anyone but the Sultan of the location of this treasure.
When he was informed of this information, the sultan was intrigued and agreed to meet with a member of the delegation. At this meeting, the chosen members told the Sultan that the treasure located in the cistern was not a material thing, but rather, a corpse. It is unclear where Sultan Abdul Hamid II learned the information he wrote in his diary, but he did take a keen interest in the potential Medusa sarcophagus.
A close-up of one of the two giant Medusa heads in the Basilica Cistern under modern Istanbul. Rumors spread that this was the site of Medusa’s sarcophagus (Matthias Süßen / CC BY 3.0 )
The Removal of the Medusa Sarcophagus
Sultan Abdul Hamid II asked for research to be done on the topic, and decided to have the sarcophagus removed after he received the results. The sarcophagus was supposedly found in one of the corridors of the Basilica Cistern. According to legend, when the sarcophagus was opened up, the mummy of a terrifying creature was uncovered. It had a human head but its entire body curved like a giant snake.
Some have speculated that the creature wasn’t Medusa but was the mythical creature Shahmeran. Shahmeran originated in Iran, but is a popular mythological creature in Turkey. Much like Medusa, she is part human, part snake. Some have even speculated that Medusa and Shahmeran are actually the same woman.
Statue of Shahmeran in Tarsus, Turkey (Nedim Ardoğa / CC BY SA 4.0 )
Today, the cistern is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the city of Istanbul, although it was closed for 4 years between 2017 and 2021 for extensive restoration work. This was done to widen the narrow entrance and exit areas, and reduce the long lines of tourists waiting to get in. The cistern has even been featured in popular media, such as the James Bond movie ‘From Russia with Love’ and the 2011 video game ‘ Assassin’s Creed : Revelations’.
Top image: Massive Medusa heads under Istanbul lend support to the legend of the Medusa sarcophagus. Source: Goinyk / Adobe Stock
By Mark Brophy