Warehouse of Empires: the Istanbul Archaeology Museums

If you are ever in Istanbul, and find yourself in the precincts of the Topkapi Palace, residence of the Ottoman sultans, then a visit to the Istanbul Archaeology Museums is an absolute must. The path to their door is not immediately obvious; you must go left across the grass, through a brick gateway, and wend your way down through a long arcade of tumbled marble. Street-cats will watch you as you pass, as comfortable lounging on the antiquities as if it was a living-room. Go through a wrought iron gate, and you will have entered the oldest museum in Turkey, whose collections range across the remnants of empire, Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman.

The wrought-iron gateway to the museums proper.

Although administered as a single entity, the Istanbul Archaeology Museums actually contain three separate collections–the Ancient Orient Museum, the Archaeology Museum, and the Tiled Kiosk Museum. All three are worth a visit, but the latter two hold the bulk of the mediaeval holdings.

The exhibition begins outside, where a diverse range of marble statuary, too big, or too anonymous to fit inside, testifies to the rich archaeological heritage of Turkey.

Classically inspired sculpture, with the Tiled Kiosk Museum behind.

These artefact gardens are a photographer’s dream, replete with odd juxtapositions and resonant with the grandeur of Constantine’s imperial vision.

Catching a glimpse of the past.

By far the most important pieces to sit outside, however, are the porphyry sarcophagi lining the entrance to the Archaeology Museum. Hewn from large blocks of rare purple marble, the sarcophagi dwarf the modern visitors, their size and stunning colour setting them apart. In both Roman and Byzantine tradition, purple was the imperial colour, worn exclusively by the emperor, and porphyry translated these associations into the architectural sphere. Throughout both empires, a number of families vied for the imperial throne, attempting to form lasting dynasties. Out of this tradition came the concept of the Porphyrogenetos, or those ‘born in the purple’, to exalt the children of a reigning emperor to a special status. Through their uniquely imperial material and sheer monumentality, therefore, these sarcophagi, carved to house the remains of emperors, manage to powerfully convey the ideological conceptions of Byzantine rule.

The massive porphyry sarcophagi of the Byzantine emperors, moved from the imperial church Hagia Eirene.

Inside are glimpses of a still lovely, if humbler, archaeological heritage. Some items, like pottery or a preserved pair of leather shoes, recall the ephemera of daily life:

Lovely Byzantine ceramics.

Preserved leather sandal soles, recovered from the Theodosian Harbour. Today, they are too delicate to be exposed to air.

…although the volume of the surviving material far outstrips the museum’s ability to interpret:

Rows upon rows of archaeological fragments, alongside the facade of a temple within the museum.

The most important development in the archaeology of Istanbul in recent years has been the discovery of the Theodosian Harbour, a Byzantine-era port for trading ships. Uncovered while workers began the work to connect both sides of the city (separated by a body of water called the Bosphorus) by underwater tunnel, the harbour has yielded a rich collection of wrecked ships and trading paraphernalia. At the time of my visit (Spring 2010), however, they had only gone on preliminary display.

The move from Byzantine to Ottoman is accompanied by a move from the Archaeology Museum to the Tile Kiosk Museum, dedicated to the decorative ceramic arts. In this case, the building of the museum itself is part of the display, since it began life as an aristocratic residence and had tile-work of its own.

The Tile Kiosk Museum, decorated accordingly with beautiful blue tile-work.

Among my favourite pieces inside this part of the museum was a brightly decorated mihrab, or prayer-niche, moved in its entirety from a mosque to the museum.

The elaborate calligraphic tile-work employed in Ottoman mosques.

…but the museum’s interior was nearly as wonderful:

A well-preserved section of the gallery interior.

Throughout the museum, the collections speak to the wealth and artistic sophistication of empire, as well as to the cultural diversity of Turkey’s past and present.




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