The Head of Medusa

Medusa Heads in the Basilica Cistern

  • The Basilica Cistern is an ancient underground reservoir in Istanbul and it is renowned for its architectural marvels, including its Medusa head.
  • Two Medusa heads, carved in marble, serve as column bases within the Cistern, their origins shrouded in mystery and speculation.
  • The placement of the Medusa heads is unusual, with one placed sideways and the other upside down, sparking intrigue and curiosity among visitors.
  • It's believed that the Medusa heads were strategically positioned to ward off evil spirits or to serve as protective symbols against potential threats to the Cistern.
  • The Medusa heads are intricately carved, capturing the serpent hair and fierce expression characteristic of the Gorgon in Greek mythology.
  • The presence of these ancient relics adds to the allure of the Basilica Cistern, providing a tangible connection to the rich history and mythology of the region.
  • Visitors to the Basilica Cistern are captivated by the Medusa heads, marvelling at their craftsmanship and pondering the stories and legends that surround them.
  • The Medusa Heads Basilica Cistern have become an iconic symbol of Istanbul's cultural heritage, drawing tourists from around the world to experience their enigmatic presence firsthand.

Highlights of the Medusa Heads

Theories About the Medusa Head’s Origin

The origin of the Medusa head in the Basilica Cistern has sparked numerous theories and speculations among historians and archaeologists. Some believe they were originally part of a Roman building or a temple dedicated to Medusa, repurposed during the construction of the Cistern. Others suggest they were crafted specifically for the Cistern, serving as decorative elements or symbolic guardians against evil spirits. Another theory proposes they were brought from a nearby ancient city as spoils of war. Despite these conjectures, the true origins of the Medusa heads remain elusive, contributing to the mystique and fascination surrounding the Basilica Cistern.

Importance of the Medusa Heads in the Basilica Cistern

The Medusa Head Basilica Cistern holds significant cultural and historical importance, serving as intriguing relics that connect the Cistern to ancient mythology. Their presence adds an air of mystery and symbolism to the underground reservoir, captivating visitors with their enigmatic gaze and intricate craftsmanship.


Believed to have protective properties or symbolic significance, the Medusa heads contribute to the Cistern's mystery as a site of both architectural marvel and mythological intrigue. They symbolise the enduring influence of Greek mythology, enriching the experience and sparking curiosity about their origins and meaning.

Explore the Medusa Head in Basilica Cistern

Significance of Medusa Head
  • The Medusa heads are located at the base of two of the columns in the Basilica Cistern.
  • They are believed to have been added to the cistern during its construction, although their exact origins are unknown.
  • The heads are made of marble and are carved with intricate details, including the snakes in Medusa's hair and her facial features.
  • One of the heads is upside down, while the other is turned on its side.
  • The positioning of the heads may have been intentional to negate their power to turn people to stone.
  • The heads are different sizes, with one being larger than the other.
  • The heads are both placed in dark corners of the cistern, adding to their mysterious and eerie atmosphere.
  • The Medusa heads have been studied extensively by archaeologists and art historians to try to uncover their true origins and purpose.
  • The heads are a popular attraction for visitors to the cistern and have become one of the most recognizable symbols of the Basilica Cistern.
Medusa Heads' Origins
  • One theory suggests that the Medusa heads were brought to Istanbul from a pagan temple in Greece or Rome and were placed in the cistern as a way of Christianizing them. This theory suggests that the heads were repurposed as a symbol of Christianity to replace their original pagan associations.
  • Another theory is that the Medusa heads were created specifically for the Basilica Cistern and were intended to serve as a protective symbol, warding off evil spirits or protecting the water supply. This theory suggests that the heads were placed in the cistern as part of a ritual to protect the water source and ensure its purity.
  • A third theory is that the Medusa heads were added to the cistern purely for decorative purposes. This theory suggests that the heads were added to the cistern to showcase the skill of the artisans who created them and to add an air of mystery and intrigue to the underground water storage system.
  • Yet another theory proposes that the Medusa heads were added to the cistern as a tribute to the mythological figure of Medusa herself. This theory suggests that the heads were placed in the cistern as a way of honoring Medusa and her role in ancient Greek mythology.
Medusa in Mythology
  • Medusa was a Gorgon, a creature with snakes for hair and the ability to turn people to stone.
  • She was one of three Gorgon sisters, the others being Stheno and Euryale.
  • Medusa was once a beautiful woman but was cursed by the goddess Athena after she was raped in her temple by Poseidon.
  • The hero Perseus eventually defeated Medusa by using a mirror to avoid her gaze and cutting off her head.
  • Medusa's head had the power to turn people to stone, and it was eventually used by Perseus as a weapon against his enemies.
  • In ancient times, Medusa's image was often used as a protective symbol, intended to ward off evil spirits and protect sacred spaces.

Medusa In Mythology

  • Medusa is one of the three Gorgon sisters in Greek mythology, and she was the only one of the three who was mortal.
  • According to mythology, she was a beautiful maiden before she was cursed by Athena for her indiscretion
  • Medusa’s beauty enraptured Poseidon and he made love to her in the Temple of Athena.
  • This act of desecration incurred the wrath of Athena and she transformed Medusa’s hair into writhing serpents and cursed her gaze to turn all who beheld her into stone.
  • Perseus, a hero of Greek mythology, was tasked with slaying Medusa as part of his quest to save his mother and kingdom.
  • With the aid of gifts from the gods, including a mirrored shield and winged sandals, Perseus successfully beheaded Medusa while avoiding her deadly gaze.
  • Medusa's severed head became a powerful talisman, used to petrify enemies and protect its bearer.
  • In art and literature, Medusa symbolises the monstrous and the dangerous feminine side.
  • She also embodies themes of vulnerability and victimhood, as she was transformed into a monster against her will.
  • Medusa Head Basilica Cistern has several speculations as to its origin and the mystery deepens when you consider the way they have been placed.

Basilica Cistern

The Medusa Heads in Basilica Cistern, situated in the heart of Istanbul, is a captivating underground marvel steeped in history and shrouded in mystery. Dating back to the 6th century during the Byzantine Empire, this ancient reservoir served as a vital water source for the city. It was used to collect and store water from nearby aqueducts for the use of the palace. Its name, "Basilica," is derived from the nearby Stoa Basilica which is an ancient public square.


Descending into the Cistern, you will be greeted by a surreal atmosphere filled with dim lighting, echoing whispers, and the gentle sound of dripping water. The vast expanse of the Cistern stretches over 9,800 square metres, supported by a forest of 336 marble columns, each standing around 9 metres tall. Among these columns, two are particularly notable for their intricately carved Medusa heads, serving as bases, their origins shrouded in legend and speculation.


The Cistern's mystical ambience has inspired artists, writers, and filmmakers, featuring prominently in popular culture, including James Bond films and novels. Today, you can wander along raised walkways, admiring the haunting beauty of the architecture, the shrouded mystery and reflections on the water's surface. 

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FAQ's

What is the Basilica Cistern?

The Basilica Cistern is an underground water storage system located in Istanbul, Turkey. It was built in the 6th century during the Byzantine Empire and is one of the largest ancient cisterns that still exist today.

Why are the Medusa heads in the cistern?

The presence of the Medusa heads in the Basilica Cistern remains shrouded in mystery and speculation. Some theories suggest they were repurposed from earlier structures, possibly Roman or Greek. Several others propose they were crafted specifically for the Cistern, serving as symbolic guardians or decorative elements with mysterious origins.

What is the best time to Visit Basilica Cistern?

The Basilica Cistern is a wonderful year-round attraction that can be visited at any time. However, in terms of weather, the best time to visit the Basilica Cistern in Istanbul is from April to June or from September to November. During these months, the weather is pleasant and the city is less filled with tourists, providing an ideal opportunity to explore the site comfortably. During the day the best time to visit the Cistern is early in the mornings on weekdays as it is less crowded at this time. 

What is the Basilica Cistern famous for?

The Basilica Cistern in Istanbul is famous for being an ancient underground reservoir, boasting stunning architectural features. Some of the best features include its forest of marble columns and enigmatic Medusa head. It's a captivating historical site that attracts visitors with its unique blend of engineering marvels and mythological allure.

What are the places to visit near Basilica Cistern?

  • Hagia Sophia: Just a short walk from the Basilica Cistern, Hagia Sophia stands as a masterpiece of Byzantine architecture. It boasts stunning domes and intricate mosaics that showcase centuries of history and culture.
  • Topkapi Palace: Topkapi Palace offers a glimpse into the opulent lifestyle of Ottoman royalty. You can explore its ornate chambers, lush gardens, and impressive collections of artefacts and treasures.
  • Blue Mosque: Adjacent to Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque is renowned for its striking blue tiles and towering minarets. It's a symbol of Istanbul's rich cultural heritage and a must-visit for its stunning architecture.
  • Grand Bazaar: The Grand Bazaar is inviting with its labyrinthine alleys and bustling atmosphere. Here, you can shop for a wide array of goods, from spices and textiles to jewellery and souvenirs. This is one of the oldest covered markets in the world which you should visit at least once.
  • Istanbul Archaeological Museums: This museum complex houses a vast collection of artifacts from ancient civilizations, including the Greeks, Romans, and Ottomans. It is located a short distance from the Basilica Cistern and is a great place to learn more about the history of Istanbul and the surrounding region.

Where is the Medusa in Istanbul?

The Medusa heads are inside the Basilica Cistern, an ancient underground reservoir. Positioned as column bases within the Cistern, these intricately carved marble heads add to the site's mystique and are a notable feature of this historical landmark.

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