Note: This post is a little melodramatic, as I wrote it last week when I was having some difficulty adjusting to the gender dynamics here.
The Basilica Cistern, although a typical tourist destination in the heart of Sultanahmet, is surprisingly poignant. Built by Emperor Justinian I to store water collected from Belgrade Forest, it is the largest cistern in Istanbul, and now the most handsome. Its loveliness is apparent in its unofficial name “The Sunken Palace.”
In this palace, a forest of mismatched spolia columns support the ceiling of this grandiose chamber, capable of containing tens of thousands of cubic meters of water.
Today, the cistern is mostly empty, lined with only a few feet of water and bedecked with raised walkways that are slippery with condensation. From this perch, visitors can walk amongst the forest of columns. The still water is disturbed only by the gentle movements of carp, and the columns are reflected perfectly in the still water. Despite the touristyness and piped-in background music, the cistern still manages to convey a haunting beauty.
The real attraction comes at the very end of the walk when you encounter the last two columns. Their bases are actually the remains of two giant sculptures, apparently reused by thrifty Byzantine engineers, carved in the likeness of a Medusa.
I found these visages extremely moving at the time, and at first I was not sure why. I just stared, manuerving around the army of camera-wielding tourists to listen to what the Gorgons were trying to tell me.
Medusa was an ambiguous character in mythology. Her eyes could turn you to stone, but her head had the power to protect whomever wielded it. In modernity, Medusa has been interpreted by some feminists as a mythical incarnation of men’s fear of female power and sexuality, or alternatively, as a symbol of female rage in relation to male control and domination.
So, here was this female symbol stuffed away a hundred meters underground, yoked down underneath a ten-ton stone column, drowning in chilly water. Yet her fierce eyes stare knowingly, unblinkingly.
Meanwhile, in the world above, I and my female classmates endure daily, predictable, minor indignities from “Hey Spice Girl”-type catcalls to being openly leered at and grabbed in public. It is not unheard of for Turkish women in the eastern parts of the country to experience honor killings. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, families kill their daughters if they are seen outside the house in the presence of a boy unrelated to her. The examples go on and on–you only need to read any page of Kristoff’s Half the Sky.
I thought about all this as I stared into the eyes of the inverted Gorgon. Someday, when women, men, and all gender identities command equal respect and power in society, I can imagine those Medusas throwing thousand-year-weight off their backs and breaking through the earth to find a better world.
More photos of Basilica Cistern on its Wikipedia page.