Scavenger cistern

The Basilica Cistern in Istanbul is an underground underwater forest of 336 huge marble columns. It was built in the 6th century CE, but parts are much older – because they were scavenged from other buildings, sometimes with original sculptures intact.

Basilica Cistern
H005, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The historian / author Ada Palmer – in one of my all-time favourite blog posts – wrote about Sigmund Freud’s visceral fear of Rome:

But Freud had a second fear: a fear of Rome’s layers. In formal treatises, he compared the psyche to an ancient city, with many layers of architecture built one on top of another, each replacing the last, but with the old structures still present underneath. In private writings he phrased this more personally, that he was terrified of ever visiting Rome because he was terrified of the idea of all the layers and layers and layers of destroyed structures hidden under the surface, at the same time present and absent, visible and invisible. He was, in a very deep way, absolutely right.

The Shape of Rome

Rome, like many ancient cities, is mainly built on… Rome. Streets and buildings hundreds or thousands of years past imprint their forms on the present. It’s a kind of architectural haunting.

Istanbul, once Constantinople, once Byzantium, is just such a city. The seat of the Eastern Roman Empire is replete with awe-inspiring buildings and monuments. But creating such massive buildings is expensive. Before modern tools, cutting and dressing stone was a costly and time-consuming task.

The solution was something called spoliation (from the Latin for “spoils”). Materials were taken from old or demolished buildings and re-used. In fact, you will find recycled materials throughout the architecture of the Roman Empire. In Istanbul, the Basilica Cistern is one famous example of creative spoliation.

The Basilica Cistern is a huge underground chamber near the Hagia Sophia. It was built in the 6th century CE to collect and distribute water to the (now lost) Great Palace of Constantinople. The cistern achieves such an impressive scale (138 metres long!) by a veritable forest of marble columns supporting a vaulted roof.

But hey, marble is expensive. The columns don’t need to be pretty because they’re supposed to be underground and underwater. So these columns were scavenged from other buildings. We know this because… well, it’s pretty damn obvious:

Mark Ahsmann, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

This is the Lying Gorgon column. Its base is a sculpture of Medusa that has been turned on its side and repurposed. There’s another Medusa head elsewhere in the basilica, that one upside down. Another column is carved with a beautiful peacock’s eye pattern:

Peacock's eye column
Hermann Junghans, CC BY-SA 3.0 DE, via Wikimedia Commons

You can visit the Basilica Cistern today (they’ve lowered the water so the tourists can get in) and view these lost and found sculptures yourself.

One Reply to “Scavenger cistern”

  1. Reminds me of the Step Wells of India in a historical water storage way. Thanks!

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