The Great Palace stretched from Aya Sofya and the Hippodrome down to the Sea of Marmara, where a massive sea wall was built to protect the palace and city. In its time, no palace in Europe was its rival. Visitors wrote of its beautiful gardens, magnificent pavilions, and sacred churches containing important Christian relics such as (purportedly) the head of John the Baptist. Emperors culled treasures and commissioned glorious works from the breadth of the empire. Yet among all these magnificent objects, the mosaics were perhaps the highest expression of Byzantine art, later influencing artists such as Giotto and El Greco. Today, the best examples of Byzantine mosaics are found in Ravenna, particularly the church of San Vitale. One can only conjecture, based on Ravenna’s mosaics and those found here, on the splendor of the original palace mosaics.
The mosaics on display are from a portion of the palace complex called the Boucoleon Palace, which was the main living area of the emperors. It is said that the famous Doge’s Palace in Venice was inspired by the Boucoleon, which featured a magnificent mosaic floor. Portions of this floor are on display in situ at the museum. Painstakingly restored by a joint Austrian-Turkish team in the 1980’s-1990’s, it is one of the most magnificent antique mosaic compositions in the world.
The mosaics depict dozens of human and animal figures, some locked in mortal combat, others in pastoral settings, all rendered vibrantly. Here an eagle battles a snake, there a boy waters a donkey, and here in the center a great hunting scene unfolds. The museum is essentially a roof erected over an archaeological dig, with the mosaic floor in the center and various mosaics displayed along the walls. Stroll along the walkway, gazing down on the mosaic floor, to connect with the past. The themes are timeless – for some things never change – yet there’s a poignancy to this display, for only fragments remain. Regardless of how skilled the restoration, the passage of the ages is written all too plainly here as the city marched on, building over the emperor’s residence with scarcely a thought to what lay below. Sic transit gloria mundi: Thus passes the glory of the world.
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March 12, 2009
From journal A Cruise to Turkey, Croatia, and Greece and the Islands
July 24, 2008
April 21, 2002
From journal Istanbul Idyll