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Was the sarcophagus of the Gorgon Medusa located in the Basilica Cistern?

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Nestled beneath the winding streets of Istanbul, just 149 meters from Hagia Sophia, lies an ancient cistern that may have been the final resting place of the gorgon Medusa, Ancient Origins reports. The Basilica Cistern, also known as the Yerebatan Sarnuj, is the largest of the ancient cisterns that lie beneath Istanbul, designed to capture and retain rainwater. It is one of the most famous and impressive cisterns not only in Turkey but also in the whole world. But could she really be guarding the sarcophagus of the Greek monster Medusa?

The origin of the 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 (“stoa” from the Greek language means a covered colonnade; by its design it should radiate magnificence – n.b.) or the Ilyus basilica that once stood above it. The Basilica Stoa was a large public square in Constantinople between the 3rd and 4th centuries, during the early Roman era, and was used as a commercial, administrative and artistic center. The Roman general Flavius ​​Ill Trocund reconstructed it after a fire in 476. The original basilica was built during the reign of Constantine I (306 – 337), but was rebuilt by order of Justinian I after the Nicaean Revolts (the name comes from the password Nica – “conquer” – which the rebels gave to each other) of 532, which left the city in ruins. The basilica was rebuilt, expanded and improved, including the cistern. According to historical sources, the construction of this huge cistern was carried out by 7,000 slaves and it provided a water filtration system for the Great Palace of Constantinople. The cistern is rectangular in shape and measures about 138 x 65 meters. This gives it a storage capacity of 100,000 tons. The ceiling is supported by 12 rows of 28 marble columns each. Each column is 9 meters high and 4.8 meters apart. The bases of these columns are made in different styles. Ninety-eight of them are in the Corinthian style, and the rest in the Doric style. But there are two columns shaped like the giant heads of the gorgon Medusa that piqued the interest of those with a richer imagination.

Rumors of Medusa’s sarcophagus

The two huge heads of Medusa are located on two columns at the northwest end of the cistern and are the cause of many rumours. Much of the material used to reconstruct the cistern was brought from elsewhere after the Nika riots. Archaeologists have been able to identify the origin of some of the material, but in the case of the Medusa heads they have not been able to do so. However, according to some, they were used as column supports during the construction of the cistern and not added at a later stage. It is also worth noting that a similar head, now in the Archaeological Museum of Istanbul, was discovered in the Forum of Constantine, suggesting that these heads may have originated from the same place.

This key stone head of the gorgon Medusa may belong to a large arch from the Forum of Constantine. Today it is located in the Archaeological Museum in Istanbul.

While studying Medusa’s heads, a document was discovered that inspired fantastic ideas in the researchers’ minds. The document is a diary kept by Sultan Abdul Hamid II, who ruled the Ottoman Empire from 1876 to 1909, and tells a very interesting story. According to this document, in 1456 a delegation was sent from Venice to meet Fatih Sultan Mehmet. She asked to meet the Sultan, but he preferred to send the Grand Vizier. The delegation informed the Vizier of a treasure in the Basilica Cistern, but refused to tell anyone but the Sultan where it was. When he learned this, the Sultan wished to meet a member of the delegation. At this meeting he learned that the treasure in the cistern was not something material, but rather a corpse. Abdul Hamid II took a strong interest in the potential sarcophagus of Medusa. The transfer of the sarcophagus The Sultan asked for tests to be carried out and, after receiving the results, decided to have the sarcophagus removed. It is believed that the sarcophagus was discovered in one of the corridors of the Basilica Cistern. According to legend, when the sarcophagus was opened, the mummy of a terrifying creature was revealed. It had a human head, but its entire body was coiled like a giant snake.

According to some, the creature was not Medusa, but the mythical Shahmaran.

Shahmaran originates from Iran, but is a popular mythological creature in Turkey. Like Medusa, she is half human, half snake. Some even speculate that Medusa and Shahmaran are actually the same woman. Today, the Basilica Cistern is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Istanbul, although it was closed between 2017 and 2021 for restoration. This was necessary to widen the narrow entrance and exit areas and reduce the long queues of tourists waiting to enter. The True Story of the Gorgon Medusa In ancient Greek mythology, Medusa (“guard, protector, mistress”) is the most famous of the three sister monsters known as the Gorgons. The earliest known record of the story of Medusa and the Gorgons can be found in Hesiod’s Theogony. According to this ancient author, the three sisters, Stheno, Euryala, and Medusa, were the children of Phorcys and Ceto, and lived “beyond the famous Ocean at the edge of the world.” Of the three, only Medusa was mortal. But she is also the most famous, and the myth of her death at the hands of Perseus is often told.

Perseus with the head of the Gorgon

Why was Medusa cursed? Although Hesiod tells of the origin of Medusa and her death at the hand of Perseus, he says nothing more about the Gorgon. A more comprehensive description of Perseus and Medusa can be found in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In this work, Ovid describes Medusa as originally a beautiful maiden. Her beauty caught the eye of Poseidon, who lusted after her and raped her in the sanctuary of Athena. When Athena learned of this, she sought revenge by turning Medusa’s hair into snakes so that anyone who looked at her would be turned to stone. … Medusa was the most famous for her beauty and the enviable hope of countless suitors, but the most beautiful thing about her was her hair. I myself spoke to the man who saw them with his own eyes. She was disgraced – they say – by the sea ruler in the temple of Minervin. Your face is crooked, with the aegis you hide stern Minerva. In order not to go unpunished, she transformed the Gorgon’s hair into nasty snakes… Ovid, “Metamorphoses”, translated by Georgi Batakliev, 1974 According to other variations of the myth, Medusa and the other gorgons were always hideous monsters covered with snakes. The Legend of Medusa and Perseus The myth of Perseus and Medusa begins years before he kills her. Perseus was the son of Danae, daughter of Acrisius, king of Argos, and of Zeus. The princess became pregnant by the Olympian god in the form of golden rain after her father locked her away because he learned from an oracle that he would be killed by his grandson. Acrisius was afraid of the child, but wanted to avoid the wrath of Zeus, so instead of killing Perseus, he sent the baby and Danae out to sea in a wooden chest.

The fisherman Dictys from the island of Seriphos rescued the two and raised Perseus as his own son. However, there were others who were not so kind to the boy. In the Perseus myth, the hero was sent by Polydectes, brother of Dictys and king of Seriphos, to bring him Medusa’s head. In fact, Polydectes desired Perseus’ mother and wanted to get rid of her son, who was against the relationship between the two. Such a mission would be suicidal for Perseus, and Polydectes did not expect him to ever return to Seriphos. Since Perseus was the son of Zeus, he was assisted by the gods. The hero received an invisibility hat from Hades, a pair of winged sandals from Hermes, a reflective bronze shield from Athena, and a sword from Hephaestus. With these divine gifts, Perseus sought out Medusa and beheaded her while she slept. Death of the Gorgon Medusa. Edward Burne-Jones / Public Domain As soon as the gorgon was beheaded, the winged horse Pegasus was born from her blood. In the Theogony, Hesiod also mentions that the golden giant Chrysaor, who was born with a golden sword in hand, was also born from the decapitated body of Medusa. Medusa’s sisters arrived on the scene at about the same time and pursued Perseus. But the hero escaped using the invisibility hat. Some versions of the myth say that he also took Pegasus with him. Perseus then flew with the sandals of Hermes or Pegasus to Seriphos. But several other exciting events happen to him before he returns to the island. Although Perseus may be at the center of these stories, it can be argued that the transformative powers of Medusa’s severed head played a key role in the hero’s subsequent adventures.

The power of Medusa’s head

When the blood dripped from Medusa’s head onto the plains of Libya, each drop of blood turned into a poisonous snake. The power of Medusa’s head was shown again when Perseus faced the titan Atlas. When Perseus asked Atlas for a place to rest for a while, his request was refused. Knowing that he would not be able to defeat the titan with brute force alone, he removed Medusa’s head and Atlas turned into a mountain.

Perseus also freed Andromeda, the daughter of the Ethiopian king Cepheus, and his wife Cassiopeia. Using Medusa’s head, Perseus was able to save the princess, who was sacrificed to Cetus, a sea monster sent by Poseidon to punish Cassiopeia for boasting that her daughter was more beautiful than the Nereids. Medusa’s petrifying power was also used on Phineus, Andromeda’s uncle to whom she was betrothed, Proetus, the usurper of the throne of Argos, and finally on Polydectes himself. Perseus’ friend Dictys took the throne, and Perseus gave Medusa’s head to Athena, who carried it on her aegis when she went into battle. The Medusa myth lives on Although Medusa is generally thought of as a monster, her head is often seen as a protective amulet that keeps evil away. In fact, Medusa’s name comes from an ancient Greek verb meaning “to guard or protect.”

An image of Medusa’s head can be seen on numerous Greek and later Roman artifacts such as shields, breastplates, and mosaics. One such example of a Medusa head pendant appears in the form of a late 2nd to 4th century Roman artefact found in Cambridgeshire. A 2,000-year-old marble head of Medusa has been discovered in a former Roman trading center in Turkey. There are also numerous coins that bear not only the image of Perseus holding the head of Medusa, but the head itself. Today, the most famous image of Medusa’s head is perhaps on the logo of the Italian fashion company Versace.

Photo: Column with Medusa’s head in the Basilica Cistern. Metuboy / CC BY-SA 4.0

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