Have mercy on me, dear reader, for I spent most of today in irons (have I mentioned my hotel used to be a prison?)
I spent hours in irons. But not shackles. Rather, I surrounded myself with Iron, bronze, silver, and marble, too. I made a visit to the Istanbul Museum of Archaeology my first order of business, thinking I’d spend an hour, perhaps 90 minutes there, before revisiting Tokapi Sarayi and the Aya Sofia, maybe pay a visit to that doge interred on the upper gallery. Best laid plans, and all that.
Founded in the latter half of the 19th century to house a number of the palace’s growing collection of sarcophagi, the collection currently spans four buildings, with a prodigious amount of exhibits off limits while engineers shore up the main building against seismic activity.
Given the utterly overwhelming volume of artifacts I saw, I decided to pinpoint three areas where I felt the museum excelled. I qualify that by pointing out this museum doesn’t do anything badly or even merely competently. The labels could benefit from some proofreading, but that detail doesn’t detract from the scholarship, the choice of items on display, or the superb framework the curatorial text lays out for visitors.
I was most interested in two areas when I started exploring — the local Chalcedon Culture that began roughly concurrently with the Hellenic city of Byzantium and pre-Persian (or Parthian) inhabitants, of the region around the Sea of Marmara.
The Chalcedonian aspect of my curiosity they handle extraordinarily well because there’s so much archaeological material right here in town. Since the Chalcedon culture was firmly entrenched from the sixth century before the common era (bce) in the areas between Uskudar and Karakoy on the Asian side, digging the subway endured a wealth of artifacts.
They coyly hint at the uncertainty of the etymology for the culture, but one can discern that whoever wrote the text sided with the account that the Persian warrior King that defeated both them and Byzantium called their kingdom the land of the blind, joking you’d have to be blind to choose to live anywhere but the promontory currently occupied by the Topkapi Sarayi and the archaeological museum, among other highlights.
Given Istanbul’s location and the trade advantages its position between the Bosphorous and (some ways to the west) Dardanelles, the city has been a sort of grand central station to the Hittites, the Phrygians, and countless others, so my interest in preparthian history is very well served by this museum.
That must have complicated trade a little bit, but not enough to dent the city’s trade profile. Interaction with Assyrians, Cypriots, Hellenes, and the Parthians visibly shaped what one sees in the local grave coverings, but it also adds weapons technology, additional materials (like soapstone, alabaster, and eventually marble) to the attention of local artisans.
What I didn’t walk into the museum expecting was the superb level of granularity that the exhibit on Troy provided. I’ve seen two or three exhibits that focus on what Schliemann did and the mistakes he made (attributing jewelry to Homer’s Troy that belonged to an earlier civilization, to name one), but never have I seen an exhibit which breaks down every layer; details its population and area consumed; described burial methods; discussed their economic position; and described their relations with neighboring cultures.
If I am to be honest with you, the fact is I haven’t done this museum and its four buildings’ contents even remotely well. This complex took me the better part of four hours and I read almost every label.
I barely scratched the surface. I doff my hat to the curators who’ve assembled this amazing treasury of glass, statuary, jewelry, ceramics, weaponry, and even the oldest love poem!