Istanbul Archeology Museums offer most-admired collections

With the initiative of the International Council of Museums (ICOM), International Museum Week is marked every year from May 18 to 24. The weeklong celebration aims to raise awareness about the value of museums as a means of important cultural exchange as well as their role in the enrichment of cultures and development of mutual understanding, cooperation and peace among people.

All regions of Anatolia, defined as the “cradle of civilizations,” host a rich cultural heritage with thousands of years of history. Every year, thousands of local and foreign people visit the Istanbul Archeology Museums, where works of this cultural heritage can be seen. Let’s learn more about this wonderful museum complex in the week we honor the museums around the world.

Artifacts on display at the Istanbul Archeology Museums, Istanbul, Turkey, May 18, 2022. (AA Photo)

The Istanbul Archeology Museums consist of three main buildings: the Istanbul Archaeological Museum, the Ancient Orient Museum and the Tiled Kiosk Museum, also known as the Museum of Islamic Art. The museum complex, which was the first museum in Turkey, contains more than 1 million artifacts belonging to the civilizations once within the borders of the Ottoman Empire.

Imperial Museum

Although the traces of the interest in collecting historical artifacts in the Ottoman Empire date back to the period of Sultan Mehmed II, also known as Mehmed the Conqueror, the institutional emergence of museology coincides with the establishment of the Istanbul Archeology Museums in 1869 under the name of Müze-i Hümayun (the Imperial Museum).

The Imperial Museum, which was comprised of archaeological artifacts collected in the Hagia Eirene Church, formed the basis of the Istanbul Archeology Museums. It is stated that then-Minister of Education Saffet Pasha took an interest in the museum and collected artifacts for it.

Visitors examine the Crying Women Sarcophagus at the Istanbul Archeology Museums, Istanbul, Turkey, May 18, 2022. (AA Photo)

A statue of the Greek god Oceanus on display at the Istanbul Archeology Museums, Istanbul, Turkey, May 18, 2022. (AA Photo)

In the later period, the Imperial Museum was closed, and then-Minister of Education Ahmed Vefik Pasha reestablished it in 1872 by assigning German historian, archaeologist, epigraphist and painter Phillip Anton Dethier as its director.

Although a new building for the museum could not be built due to financial difficulties, the “Tiled Kiosk,” which was commissioned as a summer mansion by Sultan Mehmed II, was restored and started hosting the museum in 1880.

New era in museology

With the appointment of painter and archaeologist Osman Hamdi Bey, the son of Grand Vizier Edhem Pasha, as the director of the museum in 1881, a new era began in Turkish museology.

Hamdi Bey conducted excavations in Mount Nemrud, the ancient cities of Myrina, Kyme in the Aiolis region and the Sanctuary of Hecate in Lagina. He unearthed the Necropolis of the king of Sidon as a result of the excavations he conducted in Sidon, Lebanon between 1887 and 1888. He collected many artifacts for the museum, especially the world-famous Alexander Sarcophagus that he found here.

The excavation he carried out in Sidon also revealed many other artifacts such as the Crying Women, Satrap, Lycian and Sidonian King Tabnit sarcophagi in addition to the Alexander Sarcophagus, bringing Osman Hamdi Bey important fame as an archaeologist. Thanks to these digs, the Istanbul Archeology Museum became one of the most important museums in the world as well.

At that time, a new museum building was needed to exhibit these artifacts, and upon Osman Hamdi Bey’s request, Alexandre Vallaury, a famous architect of the time, built today’s Archaeological Museum building across from the Tiled Kiosk. The new building was opened to visitors on June 13, 1891, which is still celebrated as “Museologist Day” in Turkey.

An inscription that reads “Asar-ı Atika Müzesi,” meaning “Ancient Artifacts Museum,” in Ottoman Turkish welcomes visitors at the entrance of the Archaeological Museum, one of the most important examples of neoclassical architecture in Istanbul. The tughra (the seal of a sultan) above the inscription belongs to Sultan Abdülhamid II.

A view from the entrance of Istanbul Archaeological Museum, Istanbul, Turkey, May 18, 2022. (AA Photo)

The Medusa Head Medallion and Lion statues from the late Roman period on display at the Istanbul Archeology Museums, Istanbul, Turkey, May 18, 2022. (AA Photo)

The Archaeological Museum building took on its present structure with the addition of the north wing in 1903 and the south wing in 1907. Due to the need for new exhibition halls, an additional building was built to the southeast adjacent to the main museum building between 1969 and 1983.

In this museum, the Brankhit statues of the Didim-Miletus Sacred Road, Greek Kouroi and Korai (young girl and boy) statues, the lion sculpture from the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, the head of Aphrodite from the famous Pergamon Altar of Zeus, a portrait of Alexander the Great, and many works of sculpture from the three great marble cities of the Roman period, Aphrodisias, Ephesos and Miletos are on display for visitors.

Tiled Kiosk

The oldest building in the Istanbul Archeology Museums complex, the Tiled Kiosk, was commissioned by Sultan Mehmed II in 1472 within the walls of Topkapı Palace.

Visitors examine the Lycian Sarcophagus on display at the Istanbul Archeology Museums, Istanbul, Turkey, May 18, 2022. (AA Photo)

A stone relief on display at the Istanbul Archeology Museums, Istanbul, Turkey, May 18, 2022. (AA Photo)

The museum, also known as “Glass Palace” and “Kiosk of Kashi Tile” due to the tiles that adorn its interior and exterior, was inspired by Seljuk architecture and is one of the oldest examples of Ottoman period civil architecture in Istanbul.

Works of Turkish-Islamic tile and ceramic art are exhibited regionally and chronologically in the Tiled Kiosk Museum. There are around 2,000 artifacts from the Seljuk and Ottoman periods dating to the 11th and early 20th centuries.

In the room to the left of the entrance of the museum, there are tiles and ceramics from the Seljuk period. The middle hall houses tiles and ceramics made in Iznik, while the room in the right corner features the ones made in Kütahya. In the right iwan, ceramics and tiles made in Çanakkale are on display.

Ancient Orient Museum

Osman Hamdi Bey commissioned another building to be used for the Academy of Fine Arts to Vallaury in 1883. When the academy moved to another building in Cağaloğlu, its former building near the Archeology Museum was allocated to the Directorate of Museums.

Then-museum director Halil Edhem Bey thought that it would be more appropriate to exhibit the works belonging to the ancient cultures of the Near East countries separately from the works of the Greek and Roman Periods, so he arranged this building as the Museum of Ancient Orient .

Eckhard Unger, who was invited as a curator for this work, worked in Istanbul between 1917-1919 and 1932-1935, preparing the contents of the museum and penning many publications about the collections.

A visitor examines the Alexander Sarcophagus on display at the Istanbul Archeology Museums, Istanbul, Turkey, May 18, 2022. (AA Photo)

A visitor examines the Alexander Sarcophagus on display at the Istanbul Archeology Museums, Istanbul, Turkey, May 18, 2022. (AA Photo)

The museum, which was emptied for defense purposes during World War II, was later reorganized by Osman Sümer according to Unger’s principles. In 1963, a major overhaul was done to the museum’s structure and it was reopened for visitors in 1974. After the last maintenance and repair work in 1999-2000, the building regained its present form on Sept. 8, 2000.

The collections of the Museum of Ancient Orient consist of works belonging to the pre-Greek eras of Anatolia and Mesopotamia, and the pre-Islamic eras of Egypt and the Arabian Peninsula. Most of these artifacts were unearthed in archaeological excavations that started at the end of the 19th century and lasted until World War I and were brought to Istanbul.

Pre-Islamic Arabian, Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Anatolian and Urartian artifacts as well as cuneiform documents are presented in the Museum of Ancient Orient, where the narrative navigates regional cultures through the process of their historical development.

In addition to unique works such as the stele of the Akkadian King Naramsi, the world’s first written agreement Kadesh and the reliefs of the Ishtar Gate connecting the city walls of Babylon, 75,000 cuneiform documents are also exhibited in the Tablet Archive section here.


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