Istanbul Archaeological Museums - Part I - The Maritime Explorer


Istanbul Archaeological Museums – Part I

This is my third post from a tour of western Turkey that Alison and I went on in October of 2021 before the Delta and Omicron variants of Covid effectively shut down the travel industry. In the first post I explained the reasons that we chose Turkey and why we went with our preferred tour operator Adventures Abroad. In the second post I extolled the virtues of the Sura Hagia Sophia hotel where we stayed at the beginning and end of the tour. In the next two posts we’ll visit one of my favourite places in Istanbul, the Istanbul Archaeological Museums. While this museum is not on the Adventures Abroad itinerary there is enough free time to easily visit it either on the afternoon of the first day or on the last two days of tour. I recommend seeing it first because it provides a great introduction to some of the many civilizations that have arisen in Turkey over the past 5,000 years.

Visiting the Istanbul Archaeological Museums

Technically there are three different buildings that collectively make up the Istanbul Archaeological Museum – the Archaeology Museum, the Museum of Ancient Orient Works and the Tiled Kiosk. There are also some interesting outdoor exhibits as well, all contained within these gates that are adorned with two golden Medusas. The 1869 date on the top refers to the when the museum was founded although the Tiled Kiosk dates all the way back to 1472.

Gate to Istanbul Archaeological Museums
Istanbul Archaeological Museums Gate

The Istanbul Archaeological Museums are within easy walking distance of the Sura Hagia Sophia hotel at the base of the hill upon which the Topkapi Palace is located. The entry fee is 100 Turkish lira which equates to the princely sum of just over $5.00 USD. It is one of the great museum bargains in the world. If you are planning on visiting a number of Istanbul museums not included on the tour then the 5 day Istanbul Museum pass is worth buying.

This is one of the first deliberately planned museum complexes with the Archaeological Museum specifically designed to house the artifacts that had been unearthed in the 19th century by famed archaeologist Osman Hamdi Bey who was also a gifted painter. All told there are over a million artifacts in the museum’s collection, but only a fraction of these are on display. In fact, almost all of the galleries in the Archaeology Museum building are currently closed and I can find no information as to when they will reopen. However, what is on display are some of the most important archaeological artifacts on the planet including the finest collection of ancient sarcophagi I have ever seen.

In this post we’ll visit the Archaeology Museum which opened in 1891 and is the best example of neo-classical architecture in Istanbul. Let’s go inside.

Alison on the Steps of the Archaeology Museum

The first thing you see upon entering this building is this immense statue of the minor Egyptian god Bes, who ironically was a dwarf. It actually dates only to 500-600 BC, well past the golden age of Egyptian pharaohs and comes from the island of Cyprus where he was popular with the Phoenicians who inhabited the island. Note that he is holding a presumably dead sheep whose head has been misplaced.

Bes, Istanbul Archaeological Museums

From the entry hall you can turn right or left. This is the view turning right. As you can see the objects on display are well lit and the very definition of uncluttered. I would rather see a few objects properly displayed than a jumble of artifacts with no coherent theme. Each of the artifacts are identified by date, name and location, in Turkish and English.

First Hall

This is a relief of a charioteer which is often mistakenly referred to as Hittite when in fact it dates to a thousand years after the Hittite Empire. However, the mistake is excusable on the basis that the Hittites where among the most skilled charioteers in history and it was their use of them that allowed them to dominate Anatolia for hundreds of years. During our tour of Turkey we will encounter the Hittites many times over, even if our first look is a false one.

Chariot Racer Relief 520 B.C.

The first really notable artifact is this lion which once adorned the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World as first enumerated by the historian Herodotus. Later on the tour we will visit Bodrum which is the modern name for Halicarnassus and walk the grounds upon which this long demolished structure once stood. By coincidence or not, it was also Herodotus’ home town. It is also noteworthy that at the time the Mausoleum was built in the 4th century BC there were still wild lions in Turkey.

Lion from the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, Istanbul Archaeological Museums
Lion from the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus

Not all the things to see in this part of the Istanbul Archaeological Museums are artifacts. There is a wonderful series of murals depicting scenes from ancient times in Turkey. This one depicts a wild boar hunt. Note the flamingos which have bred in several of Turkey’s largest lakes for thousands of years. However, climate change has dried up a number of these lakes and their numbers have dropped drastically over the past decade. Later on the tour we will visit one of these lakes near Konya, but given the time of year the flamingos will likely be vacationing in Africa.

Wild Boar Hunt

Here is a mural of another place we will visit on this Adventures Abroad tour. This is the Temple of Apollo at Didyma, the fourth largest in the classical Greek world. It was home to a famous oracle second only to Delphi in importance. This scene represents a garlanded bull being led to the temple as a sacrifice.

The Temple of Apollo at Didyma, Istanbul Archaeological Museums
The Temple of Apollo at Didyma

This third mural portrays a classic Greek symposium where men literally laid around eating, drinking and philosophizing, sometimes for days. It is a reminder that western philosophy first arose in the Greek colonies of Ionia, notably Miletus, along the coast of modern day Turkey.

Greek Symposium

After visiting this section of the museum you have to retrace your steps to the entrance and then enter the left hand side of the Archaeological Museum where you will find one of the most amazing displays of funerary art in the world. In 1887 the museum’s founder Osman Hamdi Bey, who was actually of Greek descent, led an expedition to Sidon in modern day Lebanon where they uncovered a vast array of sarcophagi in an ancient Phoenician necropolis. These are considered to be among the best preserved and finest examples of this type of art in existence. If these were the only artifacts on display at the Istanbul Archaeological Museums, they would be more than worth the price of admission. Let’s take a closer look at a few of them.

The Lycian Tomb, Istanbul Archaeological Museums
The Lycian Tomb


This is simply named the Lycian sarcophagus because it is in what is referred to as the ‘ogival’ shape of typical Lycian tombs. It is not actually from Lycia, another ancient kingdom we will visit on this tour, but was likely sculpted by a Lycian artist. It is made from parian marble from the Greek island of Paros and it virtually glows in the semi-darkness of this room. It is the same marble used for the Venus de Milo, the Winged Victory of Samothrace and much of the Parthenon roof tiles.

You really need to examine all four sides of these sarcophagi to appreciate them. This side depicts a lion hunt, reminding us again that lions once roamed through all of the Mid-East and much of Europe.

The opposite side depicts a wild boar hunt, although it looks more likely that these hunters will injure themselves than their porcine prey.

The Lycian Sarcophagus - Wild Boar Hunt, Istanbul Archaeological Museums
The Lycian Sarcophagus – Wild Boar Hunt

However, the really interesting parts of this sarcophagus are the two ends. On the top are two griffins, a creature with the body of a lion and the head of an eagle, although these look more like dragon heads. Below is a scene depicting the mythical battle between the centaurs and the Lapiths which broke out after a wedding where the centaurs drank too much and attempted to abscond with the bride. It is an oft repeated them in art and is considered an allegory between civilized behavior and barbarism.

The Lycian Sarcophagus – Griffins and Centaurs

On the opposite are two gynosphinx, the creature that posed the famous Riddle of the Sphinx outside the city of Thebes and devoured any who got the answer wrong. That is, until Oedipus figured it out and she/it killed itself.

On the bottom are two more centaurs who appear to be fighting each other rather than their human adversaries. It wouldn’t be the first time two allies came to blows after drinking too much.

The Lycian Sarcophagus – Gynosphinx and Centaurs

This sarcophagus dates to 430-420 BC and shows the wide range of Greek mythology in the ancient world. During this trip we will see many instances of this mythology incorporated into both architecture and sculpture.

Mythology is not the only subject depicted on the sarcophagi of Sidon, there’s real history as well. This is what is referred to as the Alexander the Great sarcophagus. That’s not because Alexander was buried in it, his actual final resting place is unknown and one of the great mysteries of archaeology. It depicts scenes from the life of Alexander and Abdalonymous, a gardener who he made king of Sidon. Although there is no agreement as to who this sarcophagus was made for, the majority view seems to be Abdalonymous, given his frequent appearances in a number of places on it. Whoever was interred in it, the sculptural bas-reliefs are simply breath taking.

Created in the shape of a Greek temple with lions adorning the four corners and the heads of an unknown goddess along the sides and top, there is nothing else like it from the ancient world.

This is the Battle of Issus where Alexander routed the Persian forces of Darius III who fled the field and left behind his wife and several children.

Alexander Sarcophagus – The Battle of Issus

It is on the ends that you can really appreciate what a great masterpiece this sarcophagus is. The pediment depicts a murder in progress, most likely that of Perdiccas who was one of the Alexandrian generals who fought for control of his empire after his death. His failure to lead a successful campaign into Egypt led to a mutiny by his troops and his assassination.

Below is thought to be the Battle of Gaza in which the Alexandrian generals Ptolemy and Seleucas did lead a successful invasion of Egypt which led to the establishment of two great empires – the Ptolemaic in Egypt which lasted until Cleopatra and the Seleucid in Turkey of which we will learn much more on this tour.

Sarcophagus of Alexander, Istanbul Archaeological Museums
Alexander Sarcophagus- The Battle of Gaza

What is very noticeable on this sarcophagus are the traces of the original paint with which it would have been covered, a style known as polychromy. This is what the Battle of Gaza would have looked like at the time the sarcophagus was first put to use. Note that half the warriors are buck naked which actually was not uncommon in ancient times. Can you imagine how stunning this piece must have been covered entirely in these bright colours? The muscles of the naked adversaries are virtually popping and to think this was all carved from a single block of Pentelic marble from Mount Pentelicus, not far from Athens. Just friggin’ Wow!

Original Look of the Sarcophagus of Alexander

But just like those ads on TV hawking a product you definitely don’t need – there’s more!

Sarcophagus of the Weeping Women

This is the sarcophagus of the weeping or mourning women for which I have used a public domain photo as it shows much better than my photos just how beautiful is this sarcophagus, also from Sidon. There are eighteen women, each quite distinct and all clearly in mourning or distress, but you can only ever see nine at once which has led to suggestions that they represent the Muses of Greek mythology who wept over the body of Achilles. Once again we don’t know who they are mourning, maybe someone who saw himself as an Achilles like figure, but while he is most surely forgotten his mourners will never be.

This photo also captures best the way these sarcophagi are presented in the Istanbul Archaeological Museums. They are lit in a manner that makes them almost shine, but with a surrounding darkness that reminds you of the solemnity of purpose for which they were created.

This is a Roman sarcophagus from Tripoli in North Africa depicting a very young and naked Hippolytus after rejecting the advances of his stepmother Phaedra, second wife of Theseus. Whether Phaedra’s incestuous advances were her own idea or brought about by a vengeful goddess (there are various versions) the bottom line is that Phaedra told Theseus that Hippolytus tried to rape her after which he asked Poseidon to kill him. Apparently it never occurred to the man who slew the Minotaur to ask his son’s side of the story. Poseidon obliged and Hippolytus was dragged to death by his horse which is actually what his name means in Greek. Of course, Phaedra got found out and dutifully committed suicide.

This Greek myth is very well known and keeps on popping up in art, literature, music and even the movies. My favourite is a 1962 movie Phaedra which starred Melina Mercouri fresh off her triumph as a prostitute in Never on Sunday and Tony Perkins fresh from killing Janet Leigh in the shower at the Bates motel in Psycho. He looks every bit as disturbed in this German movie poster.

Phaedra Movie Poster

However, what I couldn’t figure out is why someone would choose the Phaedra and Hippolytus myth as their everlasting monument. Was the dead person a victim of a false allegation in real life or maybe did something terrible, relying upon a false allegation like Thesues? Of course we’ll never know, but for me, it’s fun to ponder the questions that are raised just by looking at old sarcophagi.

One last sarcophagus from the Istanbul Archaeological Museums and I’ll move on.

This is the Sarcophagus of Sidamara which is the largest and at 32 tons the heaviest one ever found, so you’re looking at a Guiness Book record holder here. It dates from the 3rd century and unlike the Alexander and Mourning Women sarcophagi was not produced in Athens, but rather somewhere in Asia, most likely Sardis which was known for its funerary art. It was found not far from the city of Konya, which we will also visit on the Adventures Abroad tour. Osman Hamdi Bey brought it to the Istanbul Archaeological  Museums in 1900 and named it the Sidamara sarcophagus after an ancient settlement that still exists as modern day Ambar Köyü. It is now an eponym for what are also called ‘Asiatic style’ sarcophagi.

Sidamara Sarcophagus

The most interesting thing about the sarcophagus of Sidamara is that no one agrees as to who these figures represent. This scholarly article argues that the central figure is a philosopher flanked by Artemis and Helen of Troy with her brothers, the Gemini twins, Castor and Pollux on the ends, but I’m not convinced.

Sidamara Sarcophagus

This is one of the ends where you get the theme of a tomb within a tomb. Before entering the deceased could grab a snack on the way although in this case an allegorical one and not the real deal like the Egyptians provided for their dead.

The Sidamara sarcophagus is the centre of a famous dispute between the United Kingdom and Turkey. In 1882 British consul Sir C.W. Wilson hacked off this tiny head and took it back to England where it can now be found in the Victoria and Albert museum.

Sidamara Head

Not surprisingly the Istanbul Archaeological Museums want it back as it’s pretty useless as a single artifact with no context, but Britain is reluctant knowing that its museums contains thousands if not millions of items pilfered from around the world during its colonial era. We all know about the ongoing dispute between Britain and Greece about the Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon. While I am sympathetic to Turkey’s request, then that brings up the question – what about the sarcophagi that Turkey removed from Lebanon? There’s no easy answers to these questions and in the course of this tour we will visit many places that have had some of their most important items removed to foreign lands, most notably at Pergamon.

Istanbul Archaeological Museums Mosaic
Roman Mosaic

And then there’s the other side of the coin. This is one of the many, many mosaics that are found throughout the former Roman Empire from Morocco to Iraq and everywhere in between. We even saw some on our recent trip to Malta. These are lasting reminders of works essentially created by invaders and left behind after the empire crumbled. I don’t think anyone would suggest returning these to Italy. Again, we will see many more of these in situ on this trip, especially at Ephesus.

Finally, I will end this portion of our visit to the Istanbul Archaeological Museums with this huge head of Apollo from the capitol of a column at the great Temple of Apollo in Didyma. It is a majestic forerunner of much that we will see in the coming weeks.

Apollo Capital from Didyma

I have gone into perhaps too much detail about a tiny fraction of what you will see in the Istanbul Archaeological Museums, but the purpose is to help the visitor get a better appreciation of why these artifacts are important. In the next post we’ll visit the grounds, the Tiled Kiosk and the Museum of Ancient Orient Works which is amazing. I hope you’ll join Alison and I there.