Water has been perceived symbolically since ancient times. In other words, from the activity of water in certain circumstances can be inferred certain phenomena. These can be sustaining and life-endowing, as is the case when we drink water or when rain and irrigation nourish crops, or destructive, as is the case with heavy rain leading to a deluge. When submerged in water, one can be refreshed but can also be potentially drowned. In the Old Testament book of Genesis chapters 6-9, the flood narrative describes the destruction of humankind—with the exception of Noah and his family—by a flood, and yet, paradoxically, it is from these same waters that life emerges, indicated when Noah sends a dove out of the ark and it returns “with a freshly plucked olive leaf” (Gen 8:11). The biblical flood narrative thus belongs to the tradition of the watery abyss as a preformal state of potentiality—as reflected in Mesopotamian and Egyptian cosmogonies—as well as a place within which chaos is drowned or dissolved.1 Moreover, Noah has Mesopotamian and Greek equivalents (Ziusudra in the former, and Deucalion in the latter), denoting perhaps that literal floods inspired mythological retellings of these events diachronically and cross-culturally.
The early Church interpreted this multivalent symbolism, of destruction/death and regeneration as an existentially charged metaphor for Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection acted out in the aquatic initiation ritual of baptism. In the earliest form of this practice, one was initiated into the Church by being submerged into water—symbolising Christ’s tomb and death to the old self—and emerges resurrected with him in newness of life. This was of course based on Christ’s own baptism described in the New Testament, which was considered as foreshadowing his death and resurrection.2 The abyss in the book of Revelation 13:1,4 is the place from where the “first beast”—an object of false worship—(Rev 13:12)—comes out of the sea in the presence of the devil. This nuance is perhaps taken from Isaiah 27, where the “the dragon-serpent” Leviathan is described as a sea creature: although in Rev 20:2 “the dragon (τὸν δράκοντα), that ancient serpent (ὁ ὄφις), who is the Devil and Satan,” is distinct from the first beast, who may be emblematic of the Roman ruler cult:3 nevertheless both are associated with chaos.
One also finds in the New Testament references to water uttered by Jesus, when, in John 4, he offers the Samaritan woman living water that will become in whoever drinks of it “a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (4:14). It is also referred to in a positive way in Revelation, where the eschatological New Jerusalem—the heavenly kingdom—is described in detail, with the Lamb of God, Jesus, in place of the city’s temple (21.22), from whose throne flow “the water of life … through the middle of the street of the city” (Rev 22.1). The New Jerusalem is of course an image of paradise, the Garden of Eden, and the physical Temple of Jerusalem which was an architectural recapitulation of Eden.4 This is made clear from the description of Eden as being the source of an unnamed river that splits into four branches (2:10-14), which in Revelation is interpreted in a spiritual register in light of John 4:14, denoting that it is from Jesus that true, spiritual nourishment flows.
Given the ubiquitous symbolism associated with water in antiquity, the use of water in built environments could not merely be utilitarian. In other words, just like the construction of temples, political structures, monuments, and even domiciles, aqueducts and cisterns that were necessary to supply and store water in cities would also be associated with symbolism, either in their physical construction or in the perception of the inhabitants. Generally, within cities the perception of the cosmos of the inhabitants was recapitulated in such a way as to generate and maintain order from chaos, and within such a scheme water would of course take on profound significance.5
This brief article will address two examples of symbolism associated with water in the late antique city of Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine or Eastern Roman Empire for over a thousand years until its conquest by the Ottoman Turks in AD 1453. Late antique Constantinople was replete with symbolism from the ancient, pagan world, as well as incipient Christianity, that came together in a synthesis where the latter eventually was prioritised in a taxonomy to the former. In any case, the first example of aquatic symbolism that this article will address is in relation to the Aqueduct of Valens, built by a fourth century emperor who is represented in the textual sources as an enemy of a saint of the Church, Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria (also called “the Great”). Here, we will see that perceptions of Athanasius as a new Diogenes dwelling in a tub converge with the emperor’s patronage of the aqueduct. The second example is the Basilica Cistern, built in the sixth century during the reign of the emperor Justinian. Not only was it used to store water in the city, but within it, at the bases of two columns that support the structure, can be discerned the face of the mythological Gorgon, Medusa. Submerged within water, we will see that the chaotic Gorgon is drowned during the reign of this cosmicising emperor. These structures can still be seen in the modern iteration of Constantinople, Istanbul in Turkey. We now turn to them.
The Aqueduct of Valens
When travelling through the Fatih district of Istanbul, one can be forgiven for thinking that the ancient Romans ‘prophetically’ built their arches to accommodate modern automobiles. Cars stream beneath the arches of the imposing, ashlar brick and block Bozdoğan Kemeri—which translates into “Aqueduct of the Grey Falcon”—section of the Aqueduct of Valens. Valens was what we would call an ‘Arian’ emperor that reigned in Constantinople between AD 364-378. In the early fourth century AD, the Libyan presbyter Arius and his followers claimed that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was a creature, not sharing in the divinity of God the Father. This prompted the emperor Constantine the Great, later founder of Constantinople (c. 330), to respond by convoking a council of the Church in the city of Nicaea in AD 325 to address this problem. This was known as the first ecumenical council, the word ‘ecumenical’ coming from the Greek word oikoumene (οἰκουμένη) which means civilisation and referred to the Roman Empire. This council affirmed that that the Son of God is “one essence with the Father,” homoousion to Patri (ὁμοούσιον τῷ Πατρί). The Arians were also known for their violence—thus contravening their ostensible Christian beliefs—and for maintaining the ruler cult, in which the emperor was worshipped as a God.6 The logic was that if Jesus was not considered God per se, but an intermediary deity, then the emperor could continue to be perceived precisely as such. In any case, the main part of the Aqueduct, comprising two rows of arches, was completed during Valens’ reign, but the project probably began during the reign of another Arian emperor, Constantius II, who was, ironically, one of Constantine’s sons.
Up until the time of Valens, the city had been chronically short of fresh water, so the Aqueduct, the main part of which is 971 metres long and lays along the valley between the third and fourth hills of the city, remains to this day this emperor’s claim to fame. Valens was however also notorious for persecuting bishops of the Church like saints Athanasius and Basil of Caesarea. In relation to the former, the last of five exiles experienced by Athanasius for his defence of the Nicene orthodox position that Jesus Christ is “of one essence” with the Father and thus truly God, occurred at the hands of Valens. This exile happened in 365 when Valens, after the premature death of the Nicene emperor Jovian in 364, was appointed by his brother, the Western emperor and another Nicene—Valentinian—as his co-emperor in the East.
The historian Socrates of Constantinople mentions that the Arian bishop Eudoxius of that same city—who obviously worked in concert with Valens who reigned from the capital—sent troops to agitate the church of Alexandria, thereby leading to Athanasius’ withdrawal from there. In fact, fearing both the irrationality of the multitude and the possibility that he might be held responsible for the tumult in the city, Athanasius “concealed himself for four entire months in an ancestral tomb.”7 This made matters worse for Valens insofar as Athanasius’ flock became unsettled, even seditious at his departure, thereby forcing the emperor to recall him with impunity. Socrates also attributed Valens’ restraint to “the providence of God,”8 which prevented him from assailing Alexandria or Egypt; a protection which lasted until Athanasius’ repose.
The symbolic symmetry of Athanasius hiding in a cistern, while his persecutor Valens was establishing the infrastructure for Constantinople’s irrigation and drinking-water, is not lost on us here. Could it be that what the cistern was cradling in the person of the saint—with his orthodox theology on the person of Christ—was considered more precious than drinking-water? That he and his teachings were a stabilising or ordering force, like water, which, when absent, led to tumult in Alexandria? There is also a symbolic assimilation here of Athanasius and Diogenes the Cynic (d. c. 323 BC), who was also considered by his detractors an agitator of ancient Greek poleis, criticising social institutions and exposing moral hypocrisy through his strange behaviour. It is said that while Diogenes was in Corinth he defied domestic conventions by dwelling in a tub, which is obviously used to contain water. Thus, Athanasius could be seen as a new Diogenes, defying the official, and indeed hypocritical, theological position of the Arian empire, but also like Diogenes—whom we have said dwelt in a tub—a nourisher of the people theologically.
Back to the aqueduct. It was 268 kilometres long, and fed open-air cisterns named after Mochius, Aspar, and Aetius beyond the Constantinian walls of the city (yet later enclosed within the Theodosian walls), and several others within the original walls. The water was channelled from the Thracian springs of Danımandere and Pınarca, to the northwest of which, near Adrianople (now Edirne), Valens and his military were killed by the Goths in 378. He was succeeded by the emperor Theodosius I, the convenor of the second ecumenical council in 381 which restored Nicene orthodoxy in the capital. Theodosius built a new line to the Aqueduct from the Belgrade Forest, which is on the Easternmost tip of the Thracian peninsula. Constantinople was therefore irrigated once again both theologically and naturally during the reign of this particular emperor.
As we have seen, the Aqueduct of Valens carried water to several cisterns in the city, but one we did not mention was the emperor Justinian’s Basilica Cistern, to which we now turn.
The Basilica Cistern
Of the cisterns in Constantinople which garner one’s attention, two are of especial note, since they are both located in the tourist district of Sultanahmet, which is where one can see the emperor Justinian’s Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom). One of these cisterns, which happens to be the main cistern that the Aqueduct supplied, is that of Philoxenos, taking its name from the senator who probably commissioned it c. 330 AD, during the reign of Constantine’s son Constantius. It is the second largest in the city. A hypostyle (i.e. a roof supported by many columns) chamber, it is called in Turkish Binbindirek, meaning “1001 columns,” though the actual number is 224. These are comprised of marble taken from the nearby Marmara island. The cistern was burnt in a fire in 475 and was completely rebuilt by Justinian, who is renowned for creating the largest cistern in the city, known as the Basilica Cistern.
The Basilica Cistern is named after the Stoa Basilica—a rectangular hall common in Roman times—underneath which it was built. This structure is no longer extant, but the cistern itself remains. It is adjacent to the Milion, a tetrapylon at the easternmost edge of the mede odos (ἡ Μέση Ὀδός), the main arterial road in Constantinople, which marked the distances to all the other cities within the empire. Work on this impressive, cavernous structure—called in Turkish Yerebatan Saray or “Subterranean Palace”—probably began in 527, but it was not finished until 541. The historian Procopius informs us that Justinian built this cistern to make up for the reduced water supply to the city in the summer months, therefore,
receiving this overflow of the aqueduct when its stream is spilling over, this cistern both furnishes a place for the water which for the moment can find no space, and provides a supply for those who need it when water becomes scarce.9
The cistern also supplied water to the nearby Great Palace complex, refurnished and enlarged by the emperor, and its roof is held aloft by 336 eight-metre-high columns of Ionic and Corinthian design—with a few Doric columns for good measure—and a single column decorated with the ‘Hen’s eye’ motif that also appears in remnants of the triumphal arch in Theodosius’ Forum.
In the northwest of the cistern two columns rest on bases fashioned in the semblance of the head of Medusa, the Gorgon in ancient Greek mythology. Γοργός in Greek means “dreadful,” and in Greek mythology the Gorgons were three sisters with venomous snakes for hair whose gaze turned people into stone. They were the children of chthonic or underworld deities, namely Phorcys and his sister Ceto; but in later representations, such as the Metamorphoses by Ovid, Medusa was once a beautiful maiden who was punished by Athena (Minerva) for sleeping with Poseidon in her temple.10 It was, in this version, Athena who transformed her hair into snakes.
Whatever the rendering of the myth, as a chthonic being associated with the snake, which, like water, was endowed with multivalent symbolism—both positive, as in the god Asclepius or the prophet Moses’ healing serpent-staffs (Exodus 7:8-13, Numbers 21:4-9)—or the crucified Jesus himself (John 3:14-15)11—and negative, as in the association of snakes with Leviathan and the devil (see above), Medusa is an embodiment of chaos. In most versions of the story, Medusa met her end at the hands of the hero Perseus, son of the god Zeus and the mortal Danaë. King Polydectes of the island Seriphos desired to marry Danaë, but Perseus did not believe him worthy. Polydectes then insidiously planned to send Perseus away by tasking him with a dangerous quest: to bring back the head of Medusa.12
Armed by Athena with the weapons needed to defeat the Gorgon, Perseus proceeded to her cave and, viewing her head in the reflection of a polished shield given to him by the goddess, he decapitated Medusa, whose gaze nevertheless posthumously retained the power to turn people to stone. Scholars have speculated that the Gorgon heads in the Basilica Cistern have been placed upside down and slanted, respectively, to negate the power of her gaze. But the chaotic Gorgon’s placement at the pedestal of submerged columns has a further symbolic valence: namely the defeat of chaos and evil within cisterns that supplied the population of Constantinople with drinking water. This would be consistent with the symbolic artefacts, including serpentine ones, utilised in other areas of the incipient city, including the Serpent Column, part of which is still fixed in the spina of the Hippodrome.
Transferred there by Constantine, this column was usually lumped together with tripods from Delphi by descriptions in the early sources going back to Eusebius of Caesarea.13 This makes a fourteenth century account by Ignatius of Smolensk the first to distinguish it from the tripods as “a bronze column apparently [made of] three twisted strands [with] a serpent head on each of the divided top.”14 Scholars believe that this serpent column was placed in the Hippodrome for its apotropaic value,15 the use of evil creatures to ward off evil. The presence of the Gorgon in Justinian’s cistern might have served a similar apotropaic purpose. This is accentuated by its proximity to the Milion, which was topped with a statue of Constantine and his mother Helen holding a representation of the True Cross—a talisman in itself—purportedly discovered by the latter. If the cross was not enough to protect the city, then according to the tenth-century Patria Constantinoupoleos, it was embedded with
the Tyche [or Fortune] of the city is in the middle of the cross, a small chain which is locked and enchanted. It ensures that no commodity of any kind is lacking, and brings all victory over the pagans, so that they are unable to approach, to get inside or to come again and again, but stay far away and return home in defeat. The chain’s key was buried at the base of the columns.16
The superstitious use of a representation of the city as Fortuna or Destiny, which according to Polybius elevated Rome to its position of universal authority,17 in the centre of the dominant image of the Christian faith, which does not permit this sort of predestination,18 points to the syncretistic use of symbolism in the city. It also makes it likely that, just as the keys to bind Tyche to the cross were buried at the base of the column, so too can the Gorgons in the Basilica Cistern have a symbolic significance that transcends the utilitarian or mundane—that of the restraining of chaos. Eusebius also describes a no longer extant portrait that adorned the entrance to Constantine’s palace, which depicted the emperor and his sons crowned by the christogram, which comprised the first two Greek letters of the name ‘Christ’ or Χριστός—chi(Χ) and rho(Ρ)—thrusting the devil into a watery abyss.19) This is in line with the destructive power of water, and of the abyss as the proper place to submerge chaos. Thus, since symbols can have concurrent meanings, the Gorgons in the Basilica Cistern could have been both apotropaic and a means whereby chaos was ritually submerged into the abyss by the emperor Justinian, whom we know modelled himself on Constantine and indeed tried to surpass him by rebuilding almost every Constantinian edifice in the city.
Whatever the case or interpretation, that superstitions were indeed ascribed to Gorgons in the city is made clear in the Patria, where statues of two Gorgons that faced each other—in an area known as Artopoleia, “the bakeries”—are described as having been inscribed with “all the future fates with their names, this having been done by Constantine the Great.”20 The portent of the full list of the future emperors of the city, including presumably its final emperor, perhaps had sufficient apocalyptic associations to compel Justinian to submerge the heads of the Gorgons at the bottom of the cistern.
Constantinople is renowned for being a bastion of orthodox Christianity, a city wherein its art, architecture and theology flourished in the Middle Ages. But the city was also the inheritor of Graeco-Roman civilisation, including its symbolism and stories, that were often psychologised or interpreted from a Christian point of view. Thus, it is not surprising to discover that the Byzantines interpreted their heroes, like Athanasius, in light of ancient Greek philosophers such as Diogenes, in a way that incorporated aquatic symbolism in a positive way; namely, that rendered Athanasius and his teaching as precious and as cosmicising as drinking water. Nor is it surprising that they merged symbolism with profound myths, such as the slaying of Medusa, into their built environment, in such a way as to restrain, defeat, or ward off the chaos of which Medusa was a representative. These are just some aspects of the Byzantine legacy that need to be taken into consideration if one is to appreciate the holistic and symbolic vision of the inhabitants of Constantinople, as well as the role of this civilisation as a bridge between antiquity and the Middle Ages.
Dr Mario Baghos is Adjunct Lecturer in Theology in the Faculty of Arts and Education at Charles Sturt University, teaching at St Mark’s National Theological Centre. From 2010 to 2022, he taught Patristics and Church History at St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College (Sydney College of Divinity). He has also lectured and tutored in the disciplines of Studies in Religion and Biblical Studies respectively at the University of Sydney and the University of Notre Dame (Broadway). His most recent book is entitled From the Ancient Near East to Christian Byzantium: Kings, Symbols, and Cities (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2021).
- Mario Baghos, From the Ancient Near East to Christian Byzantium: Kings, Symbols, and Cities (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2021), 1-8, 18-23.
- Described in Matthew 3:13-17, Mark 1:9-11, and Luke 3:21-23.
- Robert H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1977
- Victor Avigdor Hurowitz, ‘YHWH’s Exalted House—Aspects of Design and Symbolism of Solomon’s Temple,’ in Temple and Worship in Biblical Israel, ed. John Day (London and New York: T&T Clark, 2007), 84.
- Baghos, From the Ancient Near East to Christian Byzantium, ix, xxxvi.
- Mario Baghos, ‘The Traditional Portrayal of St Athanasius According to Rufinus, Socrates, Sozomen, and Theodoret,’ in Alexandrian Legacy: A Critical Appraisal, ed. Doru Costache, Philip Kariatlis, and Mario Baghos (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2015), 155, 161.
- The Ecclesiastical History of Socrates Scholasticus 4.13, in Socrates, Sozomenus: Church Histories, trans. A. C. Zenos (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1976), 103.
- Procopius, Buildings I.xi, in Procopius VII: Buildings, trans. H. B. Dewing (London: Harvard University Press, 2002), 91, 93.
- Ovid, Metamorphoses IV, in Ovid III: Metamorphoses I:I-VIII, trans. Frank Justus Miller (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971), 235.
- Christ says here: “ Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”
- Kathleen N. Daly, Greek & Roman Mythology: A to Z (New York: Infobase Publishing, 2004), 103.
- Eusebius of Caesarea, Life of Constantine 3.54, trans. Averil Cameron and Stuart G. Hall (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999), 143.
- George P. Majeska, trans., ‘The Palace Complex and Environs, no. 13: Ignatius of Smolensk on The Hippodrome,’ in Russian Travelers to Constantinople in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries (Washington D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks, 1984), 250.
- Accounts of Medieval Constantinople: The Patria 2.29, trans. Albrecht Berger (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013), 69, 71.
- Polybius, The Histories 1.4, in The Histories: Books 1-2, trans. W. R. Paton (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1979), 10-11.
- Because of emphasis on God’s providence working in concert with human freedom.
- Eusebius of Caesarea, Life of Constantine 3.3 (Cameron and Hall, 122
- The Patria 2.46 (Berger, 81