Istanbul Stories and Tips

Piercing the layers of Constantinople - the National Archaeological Museum

The mighty Zeus Photo, Istanbul, Turkey

Let's talk about history...

History is many things to many people. To some it is remembering dates as a child in a dusty classroom, to others it's being dragged around castles against their will before being allowed to go shopping. But to me it is about imagination. It's about recreating worlds. It's about remembering those eras and aeons as they once were. Granted it does take the use of the minds eye. And you have to have a love of detail, an interest in the mundane - and perhaps an overly romantic nature. But when it all comes together you get to learn more about a country then a textbook or documentary will ever tell you.

I am mentioning this because I found the National Archaeological Museum in Istanbul perfect to indulge my love of history. The layers of the city on the Bosphorus are explored here. From Greek trading post to Roman religious capital, from the heydays of the capricious Sultans to the trenches of the Gallipoli peninsula. Like most museums a wee bit of background knowledge is preferable. You have to know who the Byzantines were before exploring their gallery. Caught between the Romans and the Ottomans the Byzantines were probably the most important of the peoples who inhabited Istanbul. They ruled the city for almost a thousand years and are sandwiched between the more prominent eras either side of them. But wandering the Byzantine statues and carvings gives you a new perspective on these forgotten people.

The museum is set in Gulhane Park not far from Topkapi (I wouldn't recommend seeing this straight after the palace as it would really be information overload). It never ceases to amaze me that the entrance to the centre of the one time world power is set in a park, and the main entrance is simply a open gateway in a stone wall. You head east and uphill to reach Topkapi, but before this is a courtyard surrounded by neo classical buildings. The courtyard charges 5 lira entrance and is in itself part of the museum. The courtyard is very atmospheric and dotted with rain-streaked statues from antiquity - Greek goddesses, fallen Doric columns, Islamic headstones and the ubiquitous Istanbullu felines.

Up the steps to the main entrance. This is a museum of the Old School with glass cases, winding staircases and echoing galleries. As soon as I entered my antennae twitched and I found myself in the pre-Roman gallery - the days when Turkey was Asia Minor and a Greek colony. As expected there were classical statues galore especially of Aphrodite, Poseidon, and Apollo. The best thing about the gallery was a colossal white marble statue of Zeus. Ten foot tall with bushy beard and clutching a lightning bolt. Pretty impressive after being buried at Mitelus for 2500 years.

The Romans were next and it was they who took over the Greek city states. They also replaced the ancient Greek statues with the new gods - the Roman Emperors. The museum had cleverly made facsimiles of what they believed the Emperors really looked like. The Caligula one was young, big eared and looked constantly nervous. Then came the Byzantine years, as said above they lasted a thousand years and carried on the Roman heritage in Orthodox Christianity. Their culture was just as strong as the Romans and Aya Sophia is the best example of their architecture that still survives. But their gallery was filled with treasure - the gold and silver jewellery was beautiful, as were the statuary including a slightly creepy one of a man with a wolfs head.

The Ottoman gallery contained something I had heard about and was on my list to see. One of the greatest sieges in history - the 1453 Turkish taking of Christian Constantinople was one most bitterly fought. The sea walls were close to impregnable and the Ottoman guns could get near enough to breach them due to a chain being stretched across the Golden Horn. The remaining links of the chain were in this museum and they were colossal. They must have been about 5 ft across and were still linked together. No wonder Mehmet II had to roll his ships up the hill of Galata and roll them down to the harbour - and still the walls could not be breached. For some reason, this impressed me more then anything else in the museum.

The Archaeological Museum utterly charmed me. It's a museum filled with more treasures then a lot of countries. Istanbul feeds the soul and the brain. It's a contender for the title of most interesting city, in terms of history, in the world.

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