What did I expect when I decided to visit the Istanbul Archaeological Museum? I only had some vague notions about the collection, but nothing more. I knew that the famous Alexander sarcophagus and a well-known bust of Diocletian were there; the oldest Jewish calendar, from Gezer, belonged to the collection, and a lot of finds from Troy. And of course there was the head of one of the serpents of a column from the ancient Constantinople hippodrome – a column that once stood in Delphi to commemorate the Greek victory in the Persian War (below).
What I really wanted to photograph was an inscription found on the Temple Mount, which says that pagans were to be killed when they came within a sacred court (photo to the left). It proves that the Jewish Temple was indeed on the temple mount, something that no one who is compos mentis will deny, but has been challenged by the former great-mufti of Jerusalem, Ekrima Sa’id Sabri. Unfortunately, this insane idea -which does not deserve to be dignified by a refutation- is gaining currency, and I have already encountered it in a book by a serious ancient historian (if someone who is unable to recognize Intifada propaganda can be called a serious historian).
One of my travel compagnons had told that the museum was bigger than the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations in Ankara, but I had not expected that a visit to the Istanbul museum takes at least six hours. You can visit the oriental department (among the finds is the Kadesh treaty), which is in a separate building next to the entrance. In the main building, you will find on the ground floor a very large collection of Anatolian sarcophagi, the royal cemetery of Sidon (includes the Alexander sarcophagus), and a department of Greek art. Behind this is a three-storey building that contains Thracian and Bithynian art, a collection of finds from Constantinople (which includes the chain that once was in the Golden Horn), artifacts from Troy, and a collection of art from Cyprus and Palestine.
The department of Greek art, where you can see the splendid bust of Diocletian on the photo to the left, has reasonable dimensions – the other parts are immodestly big, and I wondered which museum had the largest archaeological collection: Istanbul or the Paris Louvre. I had not expected a museum of these dimensions, and was exhausted after visiting it three times in three days. And every object is splendid. It is, to paraphrase Truman Capote, like eating an entire box of chocolate liqueurs in one go.
Most departments of the museum close at five o’ clock, but the main building closes at seven. In the garden, between the ancient columns, tombstones, and sarcophagi, you can buy coffee, tea, and soft drinks. You will probably need them to survive this big, beautiful museum.