All photos © Danny Herman
Recently I visited Istanbul for a business meeting (I am also involved in marketing modern art). Thankfully I had some spare time, which I made sure to fill with touring this fascinating city, from top (of Galata tower) to bottom (of the Bosphoros bay). One of my first stops, and perhaps the most exciting one, was the national archaeological museum of Turkey.
For me this was an historical visit. For many years I read and knew of important finds that were recovered in the land of Israel in the late 19th century and early 20th century (until 1917), when the land was under Turkish rule. The Turks made sure to shift all special and valuable finds to the central antiquities museum of the Ottoman Empire, which was built at that time in Istanbul. Accordingly this Museum is huge, and bears treasures of many cultures and periods, from Turkey itself, as well post Ottoman regions. This report is a sample of some of the exciting finds I encountered in my visit.
At ground level the left wing, in dim lighting and on red carpets rested an exquisite display of marble sarcophagi recovered in Sidon (in Lebanon) in the 19th century. Most famous is the “Alexander Sarcophagus”. Presented on a special podium, its beautifully carved sides depict the wars of the Greeks against the Persians in the fourth century BCE. Alexander the great is seen on a galloping horse at the eastern edge of the relief. Despite the exquisite work of royal nature, scholars believe this is not the tomb of Alexander himself, but rather of a Persian governor, perhaps one of Alexander’s officers.
Remains of color indicate that originally the figures were all painted. A model fixed nearby provides a possible view of the original relief.
Next to it, an Egyptian style diorite coffin is placed on the floor. Perhaps it too should have been placed on a special pedestal, because as the clear Phoenician inscription carved on its lower part states, this is a royal coffin. The Phoenician language and text is very similar to Paleo-Hebrew, and indeed I could read many of the words, which was exciting by itself for me. The inscription states that the stone coffin once contained the royal body of Tabnit, King of Sidon in the 5th century BCE. But the hieroglyphs on the central part of the coffin attest this coffin also held the body of an Egyptian high-ranking officer from the 6th century BCE.
What is going on here? Combining the two inscriptions, it is actually clear of what happened: this stone coffin was made and used for the first time by a high ranking Egyptian, but a century or so later it was re-used by the king of Sidon!. Could this be counted for the first documented event in human history of recycling? 😀
Moving into the Byzantine-period-wing of the museum, I was excited to see in full size the famous “Orpheus mosaic”, originally found in Jerusalem. Created probably in 6th century CE, this unique mosaic is a rare and perplexing combination sumbols. On one hand it bears a clear pagan scene – Orpheus playing the harp, while animals, a satyr and Pan are listening. Yet on the lower part of the mosaic two Christian saints are clearly visible as well!
This unique combination is an important testimony to that period when Christianity was combining pagan elements in its appearance.
Going up to the third floor, I could not wait to finally see the real, original, and famous inscriptions, all originally from Israel: The Siloam Inscription, the Tell GezerTablet, and the Temple Mount Inscription.
The Siloam Inscription was originally placed at the end of a tunnel dug under the City of David in the 8th century BCE. It records in clear Paleo-Hebrew text the happiness of the diggers who carved this daring engineering project, and all to protect the city from the Assyrians assault, led by Sennacherib.
The inscription was re-discovered in the 19th century, chiseled out of the rock to sale in the antiquities market, but then confiscated by the Turkish authorities and taken to Istanbul. Many times I have passed in the tunnel at the point where the inscription used to be, and tell its story to students and tourists. An ugly scar in the wall is all that is visible in the tunnel today, and finally I got to see the original inscription that use to be there!
On the opposite display case, another famous inscription was visible – the Tell Gzer Tablet. Dating to the 10th century BCE, this inscribed tablet is one of the first clear Paleo-Hebrew inscriptions ever found. It records the agricultural periods of the year, synchronized with the moon cycles. This important inscription is a 3000 year old reflection of the Jewish calendar as practiced to this day – a combination of agricultural periods and the moon cycles during the solar year. Even though the tablet is displayed a bit far from the protective glass, the text is clearly visible and easy to read.
At the end of the wing devoted to “Antiquities from Syria and Palestine” I immediately recognized another famous inscription. Written in Greek, I could not read it so easily, but I knew the contents well. This inscribed stone slab was originally placed at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, and it warned visitors not to pass the point where the inscription was placed, unless they were Jewish, and had purified themselves.
The last word of the inscription stated the penalty for any one who would not obey this order – death (in Greek: QANATOS).
Aside from artifacts I knew of, and was expecting to see, I was also surprised to see items, originally from Israel, I did not know of. Near the Temple Mount Inscription, for instance, a well decorated Roman period stone altar from Nablus (Biblical Shechem) was displayed.
No doubt this altar was once used by the pagan citizens of Shechem, whose name was “Nea Polis” (New city) during the late Roman period.
Perhaps the most amazing find for me was the colossal marble sculpture placed at the end of the wing displaying Roman period marble sculptures. Being one of the biggest sculptures on display, and having a clear pagan appearance of Zeus, I assumed it was found in one of the great ancient cities in modern Turkey, like Ephesus, Pergamon, or Istanbul itself. But to my great surprise the label said this sculpture was found in – Gaza!
Amazed at the ‘discovery’ I had made, I later retrieved more information in the library about this statue.
This 3.2m high marble sculpture was found in 1879 or 1880 near Gaza, in the SW part of Israel, by local farmers. Fearing it might have magical evil powers, they were about to break it apart, and indeed damaged the face, yet a missionary named W. Shapira managed to convince the governor of Gaza to protect the sculpture. Apparently shortly after its discovery it was taken to Istanbul, as I found a record from 1882 mentioning it being in Istanbul, although not yet on display.
No doubt the sculpture represented Zeus, the chief god in the Greek pantheon. Found in Gaza, he must have represented a local syncretistic deity combining features of Zeus, and Marnas (“our master” in Aramaic), a local god who was worshipped in Gaza during the Roman period.
Aside from these exciting moments at the museum, I made sure to give “Hagia Sophia” (“The Holy Wisdom”) a visit as well. Although constructed in the sixth century CE as the main Christian shrine of the Eastern Roman empire, Hagia Sophia was transformed into a mosque by the Turks after taking the city in 1453. Yet today it is neither a mosque nor a church. It is a museum. And work is still carried out to preserve the structure and the imperial quality Byzantine mosaics which once adorned this edifice. A short walk away, some remains of the ancient hippodrome are visible. Most impressive are the obelisks which adorned the Spina, which divided the centre of the horse racing track. One was carried from Egypt by Constantine in the fourth century CE, and daring task was so unique it is depicted on the marble base that held the obelisk, visible to this day.
There is still much more to see in Istanbul, yet I leave to the readers to discover themselves the rest of this fascinating city.