Comprising three buildings, the Istanbul Archaeological Museums, the first museum of the Ottoman Empire, welcomes visitors to view Greek and Roman sculptures, sarcophagi, mummies, china, clay tablets, the world’s oldest love poem and more.
Near Sultanahmet Square’s hustle and bustle but also removed from it thanks to the beautiful garden they’re located in, Istanbul Archaeological Museums beckon the history buff and the casual observer alike. Located on the street named after its founder Osman Hamdi Bey, the place is divided into three parts: the Archaeological Museum, the Museum of the Ancient Orient, and the Tiled Kiosk.
The Archaeological Museum is home to the Alexander Sarcophagus, museum director Rahmi Asal tells TRT World, recommending it as one of the most prized pieces in the collection. Asal has had a connection to the museums since 1988: in his last year of university 1987-88, he was a volunteer. Then he was an archaeological consultant to a contractor firm. He became a civil servant after taking a test in 1989, and started working in the museum. He eventually worked his way up to becoming the museum director.
Asal is an amiable man who offers up other details about the museum: He says that visitors must not miss the first written treaty between two nations, the Treaty of Kadesh, signed between Egyptians and Hittites. “There is also the world’s first love poem [in the Museum of the Ancient Orient], the Sidamara Sarcophagus, the biggest sarcophagus in the world [in the Archaeological Museum main building], the statue of Tykhe, and many more,” he smiles.
Asal points out that the Archaeological Museums are the first museum of the Ottoman Empire in 1891, and the Republic of Turkey (founded after the fall of the empire). The Imperial Museum was first established in the Hagia Irene church in 1869 under the rule of Abdulaziz.
Then once Hagia Irene was no longer able to hold all the goods on display, the Tiled Kiosk, built during the reign of Mehmet the Conqueror, was restored and reopened in 1880. The Tiled Kiosk shows Seljuk influences in its architecture, and is the oldest building among the Istanbul Architecture Museums.
The building that is now called the Museum of the Ancient Orient was initially built to house the first fine arts school of the Ottoman Empire. It was commissioned by Osman Hamdi Bey to architect Alexander Vallaury in 1883. Once the school moved to another location, the original building was given over to the archaeological museums.
The main building was commissioned by Osman Hamdi Bey and was built across the Tiled Kiosk by Alexandre Vallaury and was open to visitors on June 13, 1891. Turkey still celebrates this occasion every year as Museum Day.
Asal says the museum boasts about 900,000 artefacts. “It is one of the top collections in the world,” he says. “So are the museums, they are one of the top five museums in their own area, they hold such precious artefacts.”
According to Asal, the museum’s collection contains artefacts from all the lands that were once part of the Ottoman Empire. “In fact, we have artefacts beyond the borders of the Ottoman Empire, from Afghanistan, for example,” he clarifies. “From Romania, Lebanon, Egypt, the Arabian peninsula, naturally from Anatolia… We have lots and lots [of treasures],” he says.
The founder of the museum, Osman Hamdi Bey, was sent to Paris to study law, but became enamoured by art and archaeology. He became an artist, a curator and archaeologist, Asal tells TRT World. He adds that the foundation of the museum was not just to display artefacts, but to carry out archaeological excavations as well. “It is a tradition with this museum,” he says.
“The museum continues its excavations to this day,’ Aral points out. “But whereas it used to be throughout the entirety of the Ottoman Empire back in the day, it is now confined to the city of Istanbul.”
A few years back, some wooden ships were found during Marmaray and metro excavations (from 2004 to 2012-13). “There were 37 ships belonging to Byzantine and Roman Empires found,” Aral says. “They are still under conservation efforts at the Istanbul University at the moment, and they won’t be on display for a while,” he explains. “Not all will be on display as some are too similar, but about a third will be reconstructed and shown to the public while the rest will go to storage.”
“Imagine, if you will,” Asal says, “we are a museum but also much more. Every year we oversee around 300 excavations in Istanbul. That’s almost one excavation a day. Of course the scale is not like the Marmaray and the Istanbul metro excavations, but still.”
Asal says they oversee everything from the natural gas pipes being laid out to the electricity firm digging up to lay cables to new construction. “And we still find things, which is a pleasant surprise,” he smiles. “Not all the time, of course, but we often do.”
The museums, which operate under Turkey's Ministry of Culture and Tourism, are closed on Mondays. They can be visited between 10 am and 5 pm on other days. The entrance fee is 50 TL (approx $6). Turkish MuzeKart owners can enter for free.