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  • Writer's pictureHarry Prance, MA

A Brief History of the Istanbul Archaeological Museums

What are the Istanbul Archaeological Museums?

The Istanbul Archaeological Museums are one of the most impressive collections of classical, Islamic and medieval art in the world.


Istanbul Archaeological Museums

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Istanbul Archaeological Museums History

In 1867, Abdulaziz, the 32nd Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, became the first to visit Western Europe. He travelled between the capitals of Paris, London and Vienna in his own luxurious imperial state rail coach, which you can still see today in the Rahmi M. Koç Museum. He seems to have had a glorious time: he went to the International Exhibition in Paris and was made a Knight of the Garter by Queen Victoria. At home, Abdulaziz was a reformer – building the first rail network across the empire – and a Renaissance man; he was a talented composer of European-style classical music. During his travels, Abdulaziz was particularly impressed by the museums he encountered in Western Europe, and in the same reforming, cultured spirit he ordered the establishment of an Imperial Museum in his own territory, now the Istanbul Archaeological Museums.


The museum was originally housed in the church of Hagia Irene. To build the collection and prevent greedy Western archaeologists and aesthetes pilfering material found in Ottoman lands, an imperial decree introduced the state’s first laws governing the excavation and ownership of cultural artefacts. The state now had priority of purchase on any discovery, and it became illegal to take such objects out of the country. Very quickly, the museum built up one of the most significant collections of ancient, medieval and Islamic artefacts in the entire world.


The museum is a treasure trove and there are hundreds of objects worth seeking out. However, it would be remiss to visit without viewing at least some of the following:


The Alexander Sarcophagus is one of the marvels of Hellenistic art – discovered at the necropolis in Sidon in Lebanon, its dynamic carvings depict scenes from the life of Alexander the Great. It’s almost certainly the tomb of Abdalonymus, the king of Sidon, himself appointed by Alexander. Unusually visible on the carvings are hints of polychromy which reveal how brightly painted statues such as this would originally have appeared. The Hellenistic kingdoms which sprung up around the known world during and after the reign of Alexander derived much of their legitimacy from the great conqueror himself. One of the scenes on the side of the tomb depicts the famous Battle of Issus in which Alexander defeated the Persians. Its iconography is so similar to the famous Alexander mosaic in Pompeii that it’s clear this iconography must have been recognisable throughout the Hellenistic world and the tomb is compelling evidence of just how quickly a visual cult of Alexander the Great was established.


Easily missed, though one of the most compelling artefacts in the entire collection, is the serpent’s head from the Delphi Tripod. The Delphi Tripod was one of the most famous statues in the ancient world, dedicated to the cult of Apollo at Delphi by the Greek States in 478 BC to commemorate their victory over the Persians at the Battle of Plataea. The statue was originally a bronze column of three intertwined snakes on top of which sat a golden bowl. The column was brought to Constantinople by the Emperor Constantine and displayed in the middle of the Hippodrome alongside many of the other marvels of the ancient world. The years have not been kind to the tripod – the bowl was stolen in the Fourth Crusade and it slowly lost all its heads. Now all that remains is a small bronze stump in the Hippodrome and the severed serpent’s head you can see in the museum.


Lastly, outside the museum are four of the huge porphyry tombs of the emperors that would originally have been kept in the Church of the Holy Apostles (which was destroyed in the 15th century). To appreciate these tombs, you need to know something about the extraordinary marble from which they are carved. Porphyry is only found at a single site in the Egyptian desert, which in ancient times was managed as a state monopoly. It’s unusually heavy and nigh-on impossible to carve. So why did the emperors bother? Porphyry (which means ‘purple stone’) had imperial connotations – members of the royal family were called Porphyrogennetos, or ‘Born in the Purple’. More than anything else, however, porphyry is durable. If the emperors hoped to be preserved for eternity, they could use no better material – even today museum curators are happy enough to leave it exposed to the elements day in, day out, safe in the knowledge that they’ll survive another millennium.


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