Museum of Archaeology
Although there had been a haphazardly arranged museum of sorts first in the Church of Hagia Eirene and then in the Tiled Pavilion since 1846, it wasn’t until the archaeologist Osman Hamdi Bey became interested in the idea that a more formal museum was created; in 1891 the Levantine
architect Alexandre Vallaury was commissioned to create the grand building that now houses it, using as his model details taken from the Sarcophagus of
Mourning Women on display inside.
As you enter the museum a small exhibition in the hallway details the life of Osman Hamdi Bey with photographs of his homes in Kurucesme and Eskihisar,
and of the important digs he led at Ml Nemrut, Lagina and Sidon. The single most impressive section of the museum is to the left of the hall and houses a
collection of sarcophagi excavated from the Sidon necropolis in what is now Lebanon by Osman Hamdi Bey in 1887.
Some of them resemble massive Egyptian mummy cases even though they were created for Greek occupants, but the most interesting are superb examples
of Hellenistic grave art, including the magnificent but erroneously named Alexander Sarcophagus. This was probably made to hold the remains of the much
less well-known King Abdalonymos who was elevated to the throne of Sidon in the wake of Alexander the Great’s arrival there in the late 4th century BC.
Scenes carved in high relief along the sides of the sarcophagus depict the Battle of Issus in 333 BC with naked or half-naked Macedonians battling much
better clad but ultimately less militarily successful Persians.
Beautiful as these carvings are in their current state, you need to try and imagine what they would have looked like more than two millennial ago when they
would have been as vividly colorful as a children’s paintbox as shown in illustrations nearby.
Almost as beautiful as the Alexander Sarcophagus is the marginally older Sarcophagus of the Mourning Women, which housed the body of King Straton of
Sidon (? – c.360 BC) and whose sides depict his funerary cortege in loving detail complete with images of the women of his harem grieving for the departed
monarch. The Satrap Sarcophagus dates back to the 5th century BC, and was created for a Persian satrap (local governor) whose name is lost to history but
whose way of life complete with panther hunts is reconstructed along its sides. Finally, the glorious, late 5,h-century BC Lycian Sarcophagus is also a
monument to a man whose name escapes us but revels in exuberant scenes of hunting carved in a 3D style that is vaguely reminiscent of Rodin.
Despite the name, which is thought to have been given to it because of some supposed resemblance to other Lycian tombs, the design of this sarcophagus links it firmly to the Greek mainland.
Do no miss the griffins carved on the end of the lid who looks as if they have stepped straight from the pages of Magazine centerfold.
To the right of the hall when you come in is a extensive collection of Greco-Roman statuary gathered from some of Anatolia’s most most important archaeological sites: Ephesus Aphrodisias Miletus Tralles (Aydin) and Magnesia ad Meandrum, near Soke.
Particularly stringing is the statue of Bes, a bearded and behorned Egyptian demi-god who stands alone near the entrance holding by its leg what might have been a lion with a hole in its head; some believe the statue was intended as a fountain, although possibly it was adapted to serve this function at a later date.
Another memorable statue shows Marsyas being flayed 1 alive, a punishment inflicted on ” him after King Midas said he could play the flute better than Apollo. Other important statues include one of Alexander the Great and another of a beautiful hermaphrodite, both discovered at Pergamum (modern Bergama).
The first floor houses a fine 2 nd century bronze statue of Hadrian found in Adana, while the second floor displays some of Schliemann’s dazzling finds from Troy, as well as Phrygian finds from Gordion and Hittite masonry from Yazihkaya. The third floor has a fine selection of items collected from the Ottoman Middle East, including a large cache of finds from Cyprus, some figurative grave stones from Palmyra and carved bulls heads from Baalbek.
Easily overlooked to the rear of the ground floor is a small Children’s Museum complete with a model of the Trojan Horse into whose belly youngsters can climb to imagine what it might have felt like to be a Greek soldier lying in wait for the Trojans to pull their gift into Troy with fatal consequences.
Finally, those with a particular interest in Istanbul will not want to miss the rooms displaying finds from the adjacent provinces of Thrace and Bithynia that include a fine sarcophagus from Bakirkoy and the finds from a hypogeum (underground tomb) from Yesilkoy.
It’s not immediately obvious from the signs, but this is also where you will find some of the items taken from the city’s Byzantine churches, including a late medieval fresco that once adorned the church of St. Mercurius in Karagumruk (now the Odalar Mosque) and an exquisite icon made from inlaid marble and colored stone that came from the church of Constantine Lips. Here, too, a stone platform and a set of to 5th to 4th century BC sarcophagi are the only remains so far found of ancient Chalcedon, discovered in 1987.