Several hundred ancient cisterns lie beneath Istanbul, but The Basilica Cistern is the largest, and the only one we knew how to get inside.
Descending into the damp darkness felt pretty darn good on a hot August Mediterranean day and, once our eyes adjusted, we were dumbfounded by the sight.
The cistern was built during the reign of Emperor Justinianus in the sixth century, in the heyday of the Eastern Roman Empire.
Larger than a football field, there are three hundred and thirty-six surprisingly ornate marble columns in a strange mishmash of styles.
The huge space was built as a water storage facility which was used by the city for around fifteen hundred years.
Situated below the Stoa Basilica in Byzantine times, its twelve-feet thick walls of waterproof brick and mortar held water transported from the Belgrad Forest some twelve miles away.
Row after row of hundreds of columns hold up arches and domes in a stunning work of architecture that was never meant to be seen.
Those zany Romans hid all of this work under twenty-one million gallons of water.
For unknown reasons, they also chose to hide oddly-angled sculpted heads of Medusa at the base of two pillars in one of the corners.
In order to keep bad omens away, statues of Medusa were common in the late Roman period. Normally, they were found in buildings and homes of importance — not buried in cisterns — leading to the theory that the heads were brought in from elsewhere.
Research shows that the heads were set sideways and upside-down intentionally, but the the reason remains a mystery.
Thanks to Princess Cruises for inviting us along and providing this adventure! As always, all opinions are our own. See our entire Mediterranean voyage aboard the Royal Princess here
David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com