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Istanbul Archeological Museum
THE ALEXANDER SARCOPHAGUS
Istanbul’s Archaeological Museum is divided into three separately-housed collections: The Museum of the Ancient Orient, located in the building closest to the entrance; another building which housed the original Ottoman Imperial Museum and now contains a collection of Turkish tiles and ceramics; and the Archaeological Museum proper, located in the third and largest of the buildings ranged around a gravel courtyard. Many visitors, in their rush to see the “big three” of the old city (Aya Sofya, the Blue Mosque, and Topkapi Palace), pass up the opportunity to visit this museum, which is next to Topkapi Palace and Gülhane Park. Perhaps the idea of visiting an archaeological museum conjures images of crumbling artifacts and bits of pottery lifelessly displayed in dimly-lit sterile rooms. If so, they should reconsider.
This award-winning museum has been undergoing renovation throughout the past decade, winning the Council of Europe’s Museum Award in 1993. The carefully chosen pieces are displayed with great artistic sensitivity, particularly in the largest building, with the placement, lighting, and curator notes enhancing the museum-goer’s experience. Within the boundaries of modern Turkey and the former Ottoman Empire are archaeological sites from many of the world’s great cultures, including Thracian, Bithynian, Byzantine, Egyptian, Hittite, and Mesopotamian. It’s worth remembering, for example, that the site of ancient Troy is actually located in modern Turkey rather than Greece. This happy circumstance places Turkish archaeologists in a unique position to explore the past.
The first building, the Museum of the Ancient Orient, features an impressive display of antiquities from the Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and Hittite cultures. One of the standouts is a large glazed brick frieze of lions and bulls set against a blue background from Babylon’s Ishtar Gate. Less impressive looking, but of great historical importance, is the Treaty of Kadesh, a tablet dating from 1269 BC that contains the world’s first peace treaty.
The building adjacent to the Museum of the Ancient Orient houses a collection of Turkish tiles and ceramics, with some lovely examples of Iznik tiles. The pride of the collection is the gorgeous blue tiled mihrab from the city of Karaman in southeast Turkey.
The largest building, a long neoclassical affair with four tall columns set along the entrance, houses the Archaeology Museum. Upon entering the museum, the visitor is greeted by an appealingly grotesque statue of Bes, an Egyptian dwarf god believed to guard against evil spirits. From the entrance, the visitor makes a choice to go right, left, or up. If pressed for time, go left to view the magnificent marble tombs brought from Sidon by Osman Hamdi Bey, a 19th century Renaissance man who was most responsible for the museum’s development.
One of the world's unparalleled masterpieces is the Alexander Sarcophagus which has been on exhibit in Istanbul Archaeological Museum for 87 years. It is to Istanbul Archaeological Museum what the Mona Lisa is to the Louvre or the decorated Sarcophagus of Cleopatra to the British Museum.
The discovery of this masterpiece of art which was made at the beginning of the fourth century BC is an interesting story: The well known painter and scholar Osman Hamdi Bey was appointed as Director of Istanbul Archaeological Museum. He first organized Turkish museum studies by having an Antiquities Act passed which made it illegal for antiquities to be smuggled out of the country. After that he carried out archaeological excavations in previously unknown historical centers in the Ottoman Empire. He uncovered large statues dating from the Komagene Kingdom during excavations at Emerald Mountain near Adiyaman for example. In 1887 he received news that there were certain works of antiquity buried near Sayda, which is today part of the Lebanon. A farmer called Serif in Sayda had come across a grave room while he was ploughing his field. When the soil had been removed from over the door of the room he saw that it contained several marble sarcophagi and he notified the authorities, who sent a telegraph to Istanbul. Upon hearing the news Osman Hamdi Bey left for Sayda and began excavating. The site turned out to be an underground necropolis of the Phrygian Kings. Within a few months more than twenty stone and marble sarcophagi were removed from the grave rooms, among them those of Alexander and the Weeping Women.
Now the sarcophagi were above ground but the problem did not end there. To transport these works, weighing tons, to Istanbul without damage was a still greater problem. No ship would take the responsibility of carrying these works which were as heavy as they were valuable. However in the end agreement was reached with a cargo ship. As the Alexander Sarcophagus was winched onto the ship Osman Hamdi Bey tied himself to the sarcophagus too to prevent any harm coming to it.
The sarcophagi got to Istanbul safe and sound and were exhibited in the museum, where all of Istanbul came rushing to see them. Taking advantage of this widespread interest Osman Hamdi Bey proposed to the Ottoman Sultan that a modern museum building be constructed. The Sultan agreed and in 1891 this new building, which houses the Archaeological Museum today, was completed, and the sarcophagi placed in this museum.
The Alexander Sarcophagus is in the form of a temple, constructed of marble and 2.12 m. high, 3.18 m. long and 1.67 m. wide. .On its two long sides are bas-reliefs depicting Alexander's wars with the Persians, which is the reason why it was named the Alexander Sarcophagus. Experts say that it is not actually that of Alexander.
As you know the Macedonian King Alexandra the Great became ill while on the shore of the Indus river and went back to his palace in Babylon. He died in Babylon on June 13, 323 BC. His body was taken to Alexandria in Egypt and there buried. However the Alexander Sarcophagus was constructed in the fourth century either during his lifetime or just after his death.
One of the long sides of the sarcophagus depicts Alexandra on a rearing horse, with a lion skin on his shoulders. He has a lance in his hand and is preparing to throw it at one of the Persian cavalry. The other long side depicts Alexander as a young warrior carrying the symbol of kingship. All four faces of the sarcophagus are filled with a mythological depiction of Alexander's bloody battles with the Persian army. The pointed roof of the sarcophagus is also decorated with bas-reliefs which were originally painted, but the paint has worn off except for a few scattered traces.
Various stories are told about the Alexander Sarcophagi. For example it is said that when the German Emperor Wilhelm II visited Istanbul he asked the sultan for this sarcophagus. When the sultan asked Osman Harndi Bey what the thought of this idea, Osman Hamdi Bey was outraged:
— This sarcophagus is worth a nation in itself, he replied. I do not suppose that my Sultan wishes to present one of his nations to an emperor, if such a thing happens decree that it should be dragged away over my body.
This reply ensured that the sarcophagus stayed in its place