Istanbul Archaeology Museums – Modern Istanbul’s Archaeological Silhouette

Istanbul Silhouette

Modern Istanbul’s Archaeological Silhouette


Whether you call it Constantinople, Byzantium, New Rome, or Istanbul, the sheer historical significance of this ancient city cannot be overstated. Throughout its long history the city has been host to numerous civilisations, played a pivotal role in many military and political conquests, and has been the key to the economic prosperity of the surrounding regions for millennia. Being the focal point of convergence between the two continents of Europe and Asia, Istanbul has served as a melting pot of cultures from prehistoric times, and time hasn’t slowed it down, with tens of millions of tourists arriving annually to catch a glimpse of this ageless and yet ever-changing metropolis.


You may wonder how the entirety of the deep-rooted and wide-spanning history of such a place could be captured by a single institution, and you would be right! In order to display its enormous collection of over a million objects representing almost every major era and civilisation of world history, the Istanbul Archaeological Museums collection has been distributed amongst three separate but adjacent buildings, all under the same administration: the Museum of the Ancient Orient, the Main Archaeology Museum, and the Tiled Kiosk housing the Museum of Islamic Art. The buildings themselves are important historic structures, with the first two dating to the late 19th century, established by archaeologist and artist Osman Hamdi Bey (1842-1910), with funds coaxed from Sultan Abdülhamid II, in order to house and display valuable objects he had discovered on his exploits around North Africa, the Near East, and the Orient. The Persian-influenced Ottoman architecture of the Tiled Kiosk, on the other hand, dates back to 1472 as a royal pavilion used for watching sporting events, and is believed to be the oldest surviving non-religious structure in Istanbul.


Now that you’ve been introduced to the origins of the buildings, let us delve into the various collections themselves. The first building you will come across is the Museum of the Ancient Orient, to the left of the main entrance. The stairway to the entrance of this building is flanked by two large basalt lions of the late Hittite period (8th cent. BCE), which creates an ancient atmosphere before one even enters the museum. This museum contains collections of exhibits from several broad geographical areas, covering long time periods and the diverse civilisations found within them, including artefacts from Anatolia, Mesopotamia, Egypt and the pre-Islamic Arabian Peninsula. The information panels throughout the museum are very interesting and informative, presented bilingually in both English and Turkish. Although the majority of the collections are stone objects and structures, there is a wide variety of exhibits, including jewellery made from precious stones and metals, weapons made from wood, copper and bronze and various types of pottery. Particularly interesting to look out for are the series of coloured mosaic panels featuring animal reliefs of bulls, lions and dragons with serpent heads from the monumental Gate of Ishtar built by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylonia.


Other antiquities of note include one of the only three known clay tablets detailing the Treaty of Kadesh, the oldest recorded peace treaty signed between Ramses II and the Hittites in the 13th Century BCE, inscribed in the lingua franca of the time – Akkadian. One also finds the impressive three-metre-tall basalt statues of Neo-Assyrian kings from the 9th Century BCE, inscribed with their numerous titles and detailed genealogies. Also featured here are the entire tomb contents of a New Kingdom Egyptian mummy, complete with corpse, inner and outer coffins, an ushabti set and intact canopic jars. Aside from these, there are a plethora of artefacts from numerous cultures, as well as various reconstructions of ancient buildings and artworks, which will keep anyone with an interest in the ancient Near East happy. Visitors should allow about 1.5 hours to explore this part of the museum.


Across the courtyard is the Archaeology Museum proper, the largest of the three museum buildings. The first few rooms contain the most significant items in the museums’ collections – sarcophagi from the Royal Necropolis of Sidon, in modern-day Lebanon, which represent various artistic and architectural styles of Hellenistic influence. This collection includes the famous Alexander Sarcophagus: an intricately carved marble tomb thought to have belonged to a nobleman of the Babylonian court in the late 4th Century BCE. It depicts Alexander the Great and his army defeating the Persians at the Battle of Issus.


The Macedonian General is easy to pick out on the far left, with a Nemean Lion headdress, smiting a Persian soldier, evident from their long pants and cloth headwear. There are even remnants of polychrome paint on the surface of the marble – a very rare occurrence on such old artefacts. Other notable sarcophagi in this area, all from the Royal Necropolis of Sidon, include the beautifully preserved Lycian Sarcophagus dating from the late 5th Century BCE, depicting delicately carved centaurs, horses and human figures. Another sarcophagus worth mentioning is one that is clearly Egyptian in origin, but had been appropriated and later reused by King Tabnit of Sidon, whose well preserved mummy lies close by.


The rooms beyond on this ground level house an impressive collection of ancient grave cult sarcophagi from Syria, Lebanon, Thessalonica, Ephesus and other parts of Anatolia. The other major collection on this level holds scores of marble sculpture pieces, mostly life-sized depictions of deities and emperors, ranging from the Archaic (7th – 6th Cent. BCE) to the Hellenistic Periods (330 – 30 BCE), as well as sculptures of diverse heritage, mostly having been discovered within the borders of Turkey. An interesting piece from this section is the ‘Good Shepherd’ statuette, the symbolic portryal of Christ in early Christan art, dated to the 4th Century CE.


The mezzanine floor of the museum houses the “Istanbul Through the Ages” exhibition, which is not to be missed if you have even a passing interest in Istanbul’s rich archaeology. There are countless small stone works, expertly carved and decorated blocks from ancient buildings, pots and other utensils, small terracotta statues, and thousands of coins, seals and medals, all organised according to local areas and ancient subcultures within the limits of Istanbul. Each section is provided with maps, plans and drawings to illustrate the archaeological findings in order to put them in perspective. The exhibits range from prehistoric artefacts found west of Istanbul to 15th-century Byzantine works of art. After seeing the displays here you can appreciate how much of the ancient city yet remains to be archaeologically discovered. The Archaeology Museum has several other floors full of ancient treasures, and it would be impossible to mention them all here. Allow at least two hours for this museum, however many more could easily be spent.


The last structure of the museum complex is the intricate Tiled Kiosk of Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror. As mentioned earlier, the architecture and decoration of the building is Persian-influenced, and the glazed-brick exterior is reminiscent of Central Asian ornamentation. Parallels have been drawn with the Bibi-Khanym Mosque in Samarkhand. The main hall of the pavilion is simple white plasterwork; the various side rooms, however, are covered from floor to ceiling in hexagonal and triangular Iznik tiles, characteristic of Ottoman décor. There are various displays of Islamic artwork, Seljuk and Ottoman pottery, tiles and ceramics. Several of the unique pieces are shown below.


Once the three main buildings have been explored, there is yet the extensive garden full of statues, stele, gravestones, columns, sarcophagi and other sculptures in marble, granite and limestone. It is a fascinating area which allows for some up close and tactile encounters with ancient monumental pieces; unfortunately, the inquisitive sightseer may be left somewhat disappointed, finding almost no labelling or any information to guide them.


Overall, the Istanbul Archaeology Museums are a must for any visitor of this ancient and timeless city, if only to put into perspective the gravity of its role in world history. The extensive collections range from numerous relics which hold significant positions within global history – such as the Treaty of Kadesh clay tablet – to countless items from the past of the local regions, enabling the retelling of native and related history. This extraordinary amalgamation of indigenous and foreign antiquity makes these museums unique, and will be of interest to any tourist – local or international.


These exhibitions were organised by the Istanbul Archaeology Museums, Istanbul, Turkey.


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