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The Archaeology Museum in Istanbul
Commuters stuck in heavy traffic on one of the Bosporus bridges, packed cheek by jowl in a desperately overcrowded tram carriage or battling their way onto a packed downtown bus may beg to differ, but İstanbul is undoubtedly one of the great cities of the world.


Even those residents suffering from a water or power cuts, or tripping over carelessly discarded slabs after yet another city pavement has been ripped up and resurfaced, may take consolation in the knowledge that their city boasts a history that urban rivals around the world can only dream of -- not to mention a geographical location both unique and stunningly beautiful.

And where better to start out finding more about this city’s fascinating past than in one of its most massively undervalued sites -- the İstanbul Archaeological Museums, a complex that contains a few buildings in addition to the Archaeological Museum.

Right in the heart of the old city, in the shadow of the visitor-glutted Topkapı Palace, the İstanbul Archaeological Museums attract a fraction of the visitors of either the Ottoman imperial palace or the nearby Aya Sofya, the church that was once the spiritual center of the powerful Byzantine Empire.

This is a tragedy, as the museum contains some stunning exhibits from the former domains of the Ottomans, including Anatolia and, of course, the continent-spanning city of İstanbul itself.

From glazed animal reliefs on Babylon’s Ishtar Gate to treasures from the legendary city of Troy, exquisite classical Greek statues to gorgeously decorative İznik tiles and Hittite stone lions to the great porphyry marble sarcophagi (tombs) of Byzantine emperors, there’s something here to appeal to every taste and interest.

The birth and growth of a world city

To find out more about how the city began and developed head straight for the first floor and a permanent exhibition called “İstanbul Through the Ages.”

Here, thoughtfully laid out, are a series of archaeological finds from the city arranged in chronological order, brought to life by a wonderful collection of display boards outlining the history of the city in an illuminating mix of words, diagrams, photographs and drawings.

Neolithic bone and pottery artifacts in the first cases of the exhibition prove that as long ago as 7,000 years both sides of the Bosporus (the finds are from today’s Kadıköy and Sultanahmet) were inhabited by late Stone Age people.

Another display board tells us the legendary story of the founding of the city by the Megaran Greek colonist Byzas, circa 667 B.C. Cryptically told by the Delphic Oracle to found a city opposite “the land of the blind,” he took this to mean opposite Chalcedon (modern Kadıköy), which had already been settled by colonists from Megara.

How had they been so blind as to not see that the peninsula opposite, easily defensible and with a superb natural harbor (the Golden Horn), was far better situated to control the lucrative trade up and down the Bosporus. So begins the history of the city we know today as İstanbul, but was first known as Byzantion (or Byzantium) after its legendary founder.

Moving on, we see how the settlement looked in the Greek period, with temples to Poseidon, Aphrodite and Artemis where the Topkapı Palace now stands, the walls of the ancient Greek settlement following roughly the same line as those still ringing the Ottoman palace.

Next up we learn how the city perhaps failed to make the most of its superb position, falling to the Persians in the late sixth century B.C., becoming a part of the Athenian Empire in the fifth and, in the late fourth century, being forced to acknowledge the rule of Alexander the Great. One possible explanation for the city not making the most of its advantages was the notorious drunkenness of its inhabitants, who were apparently far too fond of the wine they produced.

Another board shows us how the city looked after it was rebuilt and enlarged by the same man who had destroyed it during a bloody civil war in the late second century A.D., the Roman soldier-emperor Septimius Severus. The city was then known as Augusta Antonina, after Severus’s son.

A serpent’s head and a mighty chain

Then, of course, comes the pivotal moment in the city’s history, when it was chosen by the Roman Emperor Constantine as “Nova Roma” or “New Rome,” the new capital of the world’s most powerful empire. Check out the city plan on the display board that shows how the city now encompassed an area five times larger than that of Severus’s city, with new walls protecting the peninsula stretching from just north of today’s Unkapanı Bridge (spanning the Golden Horn) to Samatya on the Sea of Marmara.

The development of the city under Constantine was, proportionately, every bit as rapid as that of today’s booming city, and certainly far better planned, with a newly enlarged (it could hold 100,000 spectators, considerably more than today’s İstanbul Atatürk Olimpiyat Stadium) Hippodrome for chariot races and other grand spectacles, a spacious forum (civic market place), monumental public baths, cisterns and much, much more.

To honor the city’s benefactor, it soon became known as Constantinople rather than Nova Roma. Relevant to this period, don’t miss the case containing the fifth century B.C. bronze serpent’s head, knocked-off the fifth century B.C. Serpentine Column in the Hippodrome (still in situ) -- possibly by a drunken Polish aristocrat in the 18th century.

Downstairs, in the superb Byzantine Room, is another splendid find from the Hippodrome, a relief carved plinth decorated with Nike, the winged goddess of Victory, which was once topped by a statue of the most famous charioteer ever, Porphyrios, and stood on the spina (central barrier) of the track.

Less than a century later the city had grown even further, enclosed in the period of the Emperor Theodosius by the mighty land walls that still run from the Golden Horn in Ayvansaray to the Yedikule district on the Sea of Marmara, a massive monument to the city’s illustrious past.

Moving on, a collection of stelae (commemorative stone markers often used as grave stones) produced in industrial quantities in the city and exported to other parts of the empire show how some proto-İstanbullu made their living.

There’s information about the water system (there were 500 cisterns dotted throughout the walled city in the Byzantine era -- securing the city’s water supply was as much a headache in the fourth century as it is today), the many harbors (then as now it was trade that generated the city’s wealth, whether it be taxes collected on spices, ivory and precious gems brought from India, silk from China or gold, or silver and caviar from Russia), the city’s many churches and the significance of the Golden Horn.

The prize exhibit here is an impressive section of the hefty chain that for centuries the Byzantines used to run across the mouth of the Golden Horn, from today’s Eminönü waterfront across to Galata, thus preventing enemy ships entering the vulnerable inlet.

The history of the museum itself is of great interest. In the 19th century, fed up with the Western powers removing shiploads of Anatolia’s antiquities to be exhibited to great acclaim in cities like London, Paris and Berlin, the Ottoman government finally took steps to safeguard their heritage.

The Imperial Museum Collection was established, formalizing the care and display of a number of artifacts that had been housed since the early years of the 19th century in the Hagia Eirene (Church of the Holy Peace).

In 1875, the expanded collection was moved to the present site of the İstanbul Archaeological Museums, and housed in the splendid Çinli Kösk (Tiled Pavilion), which still forms a special section of the museum, housing a fine collection of Islamic tiles.

Things really snowballed with the appointment as director of the museum of a famous artist, Osman Hamdi Bey. Learning the archaeological ropes on an excavation on the mountain-top sanctuary on Nemrut Dağı (Mount Nemrut) in southeastern Turkey, he soon moved on to dig at Sidon, in today’s Lebanon. Here he discovered remains that are still the most visually stunning set of exhibits in the museum, the magnificent Sidon Sarcophagi.

Works of art of the highest order, the beautifully sculpted relief carving on the likes of the Alexander, Mourning Women, Satrap and Lycian sarcophagi alone make a visit to the museum worthwhile. Delighted by these stunning finds the then sultan, Abdülhamit II, provided funds for a purpose-built building to house them.

Designed by the French architect Alexander Vallaury in the neo-classical style so popular in Europe at the time the building, bar the two projecting wings added at a later date, is pretty much as you see it today -- including the slightly incongruous sight of a classical Greek style pediment adorned with the flowing Arabic script of the sultan’s tuğra or monogram. The museum opened to the public in June 1891, marking the true beginning of Turkey’s museum history.

A day is barely sufficient to make the most of the delights the museum has in store (note that there’s a decent cafe/book/souvenir shop if you find yourself flagging). But before signing off, it is worth mentioning the excellent Museum of the Ancient Orient, housed in a separate building opposite the main museum, which was built in 1883 as the School of Fine Arts.

There’s a fantastic collection of Hittite finds here, and rather more from Mesopotamia, including the Assyrian, Babylonian and Sumerian civilizations. Here, too, is arguably the museum’s single most important exhibit, the Treaty of Kadesh, made between the Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses II and the Hittite king Muvatellish in the 13th century B.C.

Found at the Hittite capital Hattusa, east of Ankara, it is the oldest peace treaty ever found. Inscribed in angular cuneiform script on a clay tablet, it gives details of the cease-fire and exchange of prisoners, amongst other matters. Such is the treaty’s significance that a copy of it is housed in the United Nations headquarters in New York.

The İstanbul Archaeological Museums is open Tuesday-Sunday 9 a.m.-6:30 p.m., the TL 10 entry fee gives access to the Museum of the Ancient Orient, the Çinli Kösk and the main building.

Author: Terry Richardson | Source: Todays Zaman [April 13, 2011]

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