How old things can be in a 2000 years old City ?

Much older. Actually, Constantinople was founded in 323 A.D. and at that time, the founders used, for the construction of the new City, two columns which were actually much much older…

The Medusa Heads

Not far from ancient Constantinople’s heart, Justian built the main undeground water supply called in our days the Basilica Cistern.

It is actually a huge underground water reservoir built in 533 A.D.

The Basilica Cistern, photo by Clint Koehler, 2010

In some forgotten corner of the reservoir, lays a very strange column…. with a Medusa head up side down make it one of the strangest things in this Ancient City. There are actually two Medusa heads in the reservoir, one up side downd and the other one on the side.

The Medusa head in Basilica Cistern

Medusa head in Basilica Cistern

But who is Medusa ?

Medusa, a sea nymph, was the most beautiful of the three gorgon sisters. She was courted by Poseidon, and made love to him in a temple of Athena.

Furious, Athena transformed Medusa into a monstrous chthonic beast with snakes instead of hair, whose frightening face could turn onlookers to stone. She was beheaded while sleeping by the hero Perseus, who thereafter used her head as a weapon until giving it to the goddess Athena to place on her shield.

Having coupled with Poseidon previously, two beings sprang from her body when she was beheaded. One, Pegasus, was a winged horse later tamed by Bellerophon to help him kill the chimera. The other, Chrysaor of the Golden Sword, remains relatively unknown today.

In classical antiquity and today, the image of the head of Medusa finds expression in the evil-averting device.

Where do the heads come from ?

The exact origin of the two heads is unknown, but there is a strong probability they belong to an ancient temple of the city of Byzantium, founded in 635 B.C. some 1000 years before the foundation of Constantinople.

Byzas from Megara, son of King Nisos (Νίσος) and founder of Byzantium

According to some interpretations, these heads were positioned as such in order to cancel out the power of the Gorgon’s petrifying gaze. Throughout the Cistern the columns are wet and smooth in touch and water drops harmoniously, producing a sound that reminds of Medusa’s melody to the visitors.

The Serpent Column

Another artefact is to be seen at ground surface, in the very heart of what used to be the Hippodrome.

The serpent column in the heart of Constantinople

The Serpent column’s head, in a museum in Istanbul.

Edward Gibbon, a well known historian tells us about Mahomet, the conqueror of the City in 1453.

“The conqueror gazed in satisfaction and wonder on the strange though splendid appearance of the domes and palaces, so dissimilar from the style of Oriental architecture. In the hippodrome, his eye was attracted by the twisted column of the three serpents, and, as a trial of his strength, he shattered with his iron mace or battleaxe the under-jaw of one of these monsters, which in the eyes of the Turks were the idols or talismans of the city”

Here are some virtual images of the Hippodrome in Constantinople. Please note Theodosius Obelisc on the left, the Serpent Column in the middle and the statue of Constantine the Great on the right, as Mahomet found them in 1453.

View of the Hippodrome in Constantinople (virtual image). Please note the Serpent Column in the center.

Virtual image of the Hippodrome in Constantinople

It seems the column was feard by the turks…

Some turkish drawing of the Serpent Column

But where did the Serpent Column come from ?

Also known as the Delphi Tripod or Plataean Tripod, it is actually a trophy dedicated to Apolo at Delphi. The offering was made in the spring of 478 BC, few months after the defeat of the Persian army in the Battle of Plataea (August 479 BC).

It was relocated form Delphi to Constantinople in 324 by Constantine the Great.

The Serpent Column has one of the longest literary histories of any object surviving from Greek and Roman times. Among the writers who allude to the Column in the ancient literature are Herodotus, Thucydides, Demosthenes, Diodorus Siculus, Pausanias the traveller, Cornelius Nepos and Plutarch.

The column is eighteen feet high column had the shape of three snakes, their tails intertwined, carrying, on their heads, a tripod made of gold. On the tripod was written a poem that is dubiously attributed to the poet Simonides:

This is the gift the saviors of far-flung Hellas upraised here,
Having delivered their states from loathsome slavery’s bonds.

On the coils of the column, an inscription was written that mentioned the Greek city states that had fought the war.

Temple of Apollo, Delphi, Greece

Apollo and black bird, Delphi

The original monument base, in Delphi.

What did the Serpent Column commemorate ?

The Battle of Platea followed the battles of Thermopilae and Salamina and was the last battle of the Greek-Persian wars. It was fought by the greek States in all their splendour, assembling the largest Spartan army of all times. The Battle of Marathon showed that the Persians could be defeated, the Battle of Salamis saved Greece from immediate conquest and the battle of Plataea that effectively put a stop to the Persian threat, paving the way for the destruction of the Persian Empire by Alexander the Great some decades later.

Battle of Plateea, 479 B..C


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