6th Century AD: Medusa

Medusa - Bascilica Cistern, Istanbul (6th Century) 1

Medusa - Bascilica Cistern, Istanbul (6th Century) 2No one really has an explanation for the two massive Medusa heads that support columns in the Basilica Cistern, a cathedral-sized reservoir underneath the city of Istanbul.

The Medusa, of course, is a monster from Greek mythology: a winged woman with living snakes for hair; anyone who looked at her was turned to stone.

The structureā€”the largest of hundreds under the cityā€”was built in the 6th century, during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I and provided a water filtration system for his palace and other buildings.

The simplest explanation is that the heads were repurposed remains that just happened to be the right heightā€”and no particular meaning was indicated by their orientation. A traditional account is that inverting the heads was meant to negate the power of the medusa; similarly, they may have been placed to show early Christians’ attitude toward the mythological religion of the Greeks.

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