Exploring Istanbul's Archaeological Museum: A Visitor's Guide
Istanbul's Archaeological Museum contains an important and beautifully presented collection of prehistoric, Greek, Roman, and Byzantine antiquities, which all come from the Topkapi Palace collections. Along with the nearby Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts, this is the city's top museum attraction and it should be high on the list of things to do for history-loving tourists.
Located in Gülhane Park, just to the south of Topkapi Palace itself, the museum consists of three separate buildings.
The main building, with its imposing Neoclassical facade, houses the museum's major treasures. Among the principal exhibits are the finds brought back from Lebanon by Ottoman archaeologist Osman Hamdi Bey. The rich treasure trove of sarcophagi he unearthed in Sidon (in south Lebanon) is from ancient Sidon's royal necropolis.
In particular, the magnificent Alexander Sarcophagus, with its intricate depiction of the Macedonian army battling the Persians, and the Sarcophagus of the Mourners, with 18 figures of mourning women, are gorgeous examples of the rich grave art of the 4th century BC.
As well as the Sidon cache, the collection includes sarcophagi found throughout the Ottoman Empire. The most exceptionally beautiful examples are the 5th-century BC Sarcophagus of the Satrap, the Lycian Sarcophagus (ca. 400 BC), and the 3rd-century Sidamara Sarcophagus from Konya. There are also some fine funerary stele and inscribed stones.
Away from the tombs, there are also exhibits covering Troy and Anatolia, Cyprus, and Syria, and a vast coinage collection.
The building was initially built in 1881 by Osman Hamdi Bey specifically to house the collection, though it wasn't until 1908 that it gained its present form. It's renowned as the city's most prominent example of Neoclassical architecture.
Istanbul through the Ages Exhibit
This excellent exhibit within the main building does a good job of explaining the vast and complicated history of the city of Istanbul. The displays here convey the story of the city, from the legend of its founding right up to the Ottoman era. It's a good way to wrap your head around the staggering history of this metropolis.
Museum of Ancient Oriental Art (Eski Sark Eserleri Müzesi)
Across the courtyard from the main museum building, this section of the collection is devoted to exhibits of pre-Islamic artistry. The artifacts here span the Middle East, from Ancient Egypt to Mesopotamia, and range from Assyrian and Hittite cuneiform tablets to Pharaonic statuary. The major highlight for most visitors is the ancient Babylon exhibit, which includes the glazed brick panels from Babylon's Ishtar gate. The building itself was built in 1883 and was first used as Istanbul's school of fine arts.
The third building in the museum complex is the graceful Tiled Pavilion (Cinili Kösk), which is one of the oldest surviving Ottoman buildings in Istanbul. Built in 1472, it shows a clear Persian influence in its architecture. It was originally built for Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror as a rather grand spot for the sultan to watch games and sports. The building's gorgeous ceramic work (mainly 16th-century Iznik tiles) and 12th- to 19th-century faience decoration have been wonderfully well-preserved.
Around the Museum
After your museum visit, take time out to wander through Gülhane Park, which was once the Ottoman Sultan's gardens. The gardens are a peaceful slice of greenery right in the heart of the old city, with manicured rose and tulip beds, shady trees, and great views over the Golden Horn. Here, you'll also find a couple of lesser visited, specialist museums. The Museum of the History of Science and Technology in Islam and the Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar Literature Museum are both interesting diversions if you have some time up your sleeve.
If you've had your fill of history for the day, head to the tea garden for the best panoramic vistas.
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Istanbul Highlights: Istanbul has many major monuments and attractions to explore from both its Byzantine and Ottoman eras. In particular, don't miss the Aya Sofya, Byzantium's most beautiful and famed church; Topkapi Palace, once home to the Ottoman sultans; and the Blue Mosque, known for its interior of Iznik tilework. For rewarding things to see and do near the city, see our page on the top day trips from Istanbul.