Julián Montaño

Liturgy_y “Like the trunk of trees in a pruned forest”, said Edmundo D’Amicis. This is the romantic view of the time: mysterious darkness in the deep, a secret basilica built in the underground where who knows which secret treasures are hidden from the hands of enemy parties fighting for the throne, schismatics that took out of sight their liturgical objects, unknown jewels of balkan princesses concealed to the eyes of the muslims. An unseen place with the humid horror of Gorgona’s breath, there in the dark, waiting for incatious victims without a shield to reflect to her her terrible face. One could feel all these if one could abstract oneself from the chattering of the tourists and the camera flashes that shot like a postmodern storm in that forest of columns.

Far from this, the Cistern is a wonder of Roman engineering, an marvellous example of the Roman skill for building in incredible places and for conquering the forest, the seas, the underground and the sky: the oppidum built in the far side of the world, the magnificient Navy that arrived to the British isles, the mining in Hispania, the many floors Insulae that grow all over the City.

Romans and Byzantines love Order. To build something is to put order. To raise an Empire is to produce laws that shape human behaviour and movement and to establish a system of roads for allowing this movement. For the Byzantines to conquer, to establish a place to live is to erect columns and differentiate the space, in Edessa far in the East or in Al Kharga that remote place in the deep Egypt, wherever. The question is to maintain that disordered place, inhabitable, where there is no distinction between the sacred and the prophane, the Hell, that undifferentiated cave where demons attack monks (see The Life of St. Anthony Abbot by St Athanasius) out of the Walls of the Empire, out of the City, out the place where the walls and columns give order to the light and the Light is differentiated from the shadow (Lumen de Lumine, phôs ek phôtós, Light of Light, prays the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed common to Eastern and Western churches) –for an account of the importance of Light and Shadow, specially Shadow, in the aesthetics of a complex Empire as the Byzantine like the Japanese, see Junichirô Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows.

28478503_8e5b9fc025 The Cistern could only be built by Justinianus I, that severe figure depicted in Ravenna, who compiled the Corpus Iuris Civilis, who erected for the ancient world the building of the most impressive Law system, who ordered with the same imperative character the light and the sound with the domes of Hagia Sofía, a place for much ordered unending rituals. The cistern is the example of a culture that conceives the space as something to be ordered, and engineering and architecture as the administration of light and shadow. Many of the Byzantine churches gave us the impression of little caves connected between them (the different chapels) as if building were to open the space in the dark, to build columns into a cave. Solid buildings that show the strength of the Empire and the Law that surpass human power (that should limit itself to whisper litanies in the dark, to humbly follow the ritual, to admire the super-trascendent, to comment modestly the comment of the comment of the comment of some Father of the Church in a corner of a millenarian place).

On the other hand the Cistern is a marvel of engineering. It is the product of a flourishing culture that based its growth in 1) the New Technologies (Muslims copied architectural procedures and inventions from Byzantium), impressive administrative and clerical buildings, cisterns, drain systems, Greek Fire, a road net that extended from North Italy and Trebizond in the Black Sea near Persian Empire western limits (Irak) to Sinai peninsula and all the Nile riverside; 2) a global language: Greek; and 3) the religion of St John Crysostom and St Basil –for an account of what remains from all these see William Dalrymple’s travel book From the Holy Mountain, happily subtitled A Journey in the Shadow of Byzantium.


Post Scriptum:

1)      The Cistern appears on James Bond saga movie From Russia, With Love, where in a supposed lost drain of the Cistern the British secret service hides a periscope to spy Soviet embassy.

2)      Arantza de Areilza tells us among other interesting figures that the area of the Cistern is 70 metres width. We have to add, after the conclusion of several studies, in the light of further evidence, following several authors on the topic that the exact width is 71’5 metres.


No comments yet.

Leave a Comment


We use both our own and third-party cookies to enhance our services and to offer you the content that most suits your preferences by analysing your browsing habits. Your continued use of the site means that you accept these cookies. You may change your settings and obtain more information here. Accept