Set atop a hill in Gülhane Park, just meters from Topkapı Palace, the Archaeology Museum Complex boasts one of the world’s most stunning collections of ancient artifacts. At the height of its power, the Ottoman Empire stretched across major sections of Europe, Asia and Africa, so it should come as no surprise that countless treasures have found their way to Istanbul.
The museum was established in the late 1800s, partially to combat the widespread practice of spiriting off archaeological finds to countries like England or Germany. (Whether this was done to loot or protect them is perhaps a matter of perspective.) The Ottoman Empire was in the process of Westernizing, and the establishment of a Archaeological Museum to protect and display its treasures was a step in the country’s new direction.
Today, the complex consists of three museums. Of these, the Archaeology Museum is the focal point, occupying a massive neoclassical building. The museum wastes no time in impressing, placing its most stunning artifacts in the rooms just past the entrance: The Sarcophagi of Sidon. Found during a famous dig in modern-day Lebanon, these incredibly well-preserved and exquisitely decorated coffins held the bones of kings. The most famous of them is the Alexander Sarcophagus, which depicts the great Macedonian king in battle scenes (though it was not, as originally thought, his coffin).
The museum features objects found across the Ottoman Empire and ancient Byzantine, with mummies and statues joining historic relics like the snake’s head stricken from the Hippodrome’s Serpentine Column. A large exhibit on the second floor is dedicated to the archaeological history of Istanbul — a collection so complete and interesting, that it could easily justify its own museum. Another exhibit is dedicated to objects from the regions neighboring Turkey, mostly Cyprus and Syria.
This museum requires at least an hour from even the most disinterested visitor, and we were inside much longer than that. So, our legs were happy to take a tea break at the pleasant outdoor cafe, in a garden decorated with an army of ancient statues.
Right across from the Archaeology Museum is the beautiful Tiled Kiosk, home to the Museum of Turkish Ceramics. Thankfully, this museum was small. The tiles found within are striking, and there was plenty of information about the history of Turkish ceramics, but (for us) the highlight was the building itself, built in 1472 for Sultan Mehmet II as a pleasure palace.
Finally, we drug our weary bodies into the Museum of the Ancient Orient, which concentrates on artifacts from Egypt, Mesopotamia and Anatolia. We liked this collection almost as much as the Archaeology Museum’s. It includes the world’s oldest peace treaty, the Treaty of Kadesh, signed between Egypt and the Hittites in 1297 BC (a copy of which hangs on the walls of the United Nations). There’s also a beautifully preserved, and opened, Egyptian coffin and mummy, as well as tiles from Babylon’s legendary Ishtar Gate.
Given the ridiculous amount of incredible things to see in the Archaeology Museum Complex, the price is entirely fair, at just 10TL ($5.50). I also found the audio-guide to be worthwhile. Despite its proximity to Topkapı Palace, there are relatively few tourists here, so it makes a great place to escape the hordes and lose yourself in the ancient world. In all, a highly-rewarding place to spend a few hours… or perhaps even an entire day.
Istanbul Archaeology Museum – Website