Nestled near Topkapı Palace, the city's foremost archaeological museum awaits exploration. Currently undergoing extensive renovation, the main building remains mostly closed, with only the Tiled Pavilion, Museum of the Ancient Orient, and Ancient Age Sculpture section accessible. The remaining exhibits will reopen in 2020.
The museum complex comprises three main parts: the Museum of the Ancient Orient, the Archaeology Museum, and the Tiled Pavilion. All three house the palace collections assembled during the late 19th century by Osman Hamdi Bey, a prominent museum director, artist, and archaeologist. A convenient stroll from Topkapı's First Court or a leisurely ascent from Gülhane Park's main gate leads to this cultural trove.
Museum of the Ancient Orient:
Step into this 1883 building, the first on the left upon entering the complex, to encounter a mesmerizing collection of pre-Islamic artifacts from across the Ottoman Empire. Among the highlights are an 8th-century BC Hittite rock relief molding depicting the storm god Tarhunza and a series of large blue-and-yellow glazed-brick panels that once adorned the processional street and Ishtar gate of ancient Babylon. These intricate panels depict both real and mythical creatures, such as lions, dragons, and bulls.
On the opposite side of the courtyard from the Museum of the Ancient Orient stands an imposing neoclassical structure, parts of which were under renovation during our visit. Within its walls, you will find an extensive array of classical statuary, sarcophagi, and exhibits documenting Istanbul's ancient, Byzantine, and Ottoman history.
The museum's prized possessions are the sarcophagi, including those from the Royal Necropolis of Sidon (modern-day Lebanon), discovered in 1887 by Osman Hamdi Bey. Among them, the Alexander Sarcophagus and Mourning Women Sarcophagus are absolute must-sees.
The northern wing of the museum showcases an impressive collection of ancient grave-cult sarcophagi from Syria, Lebanon, Thessalonica, and Ephesus (Efes), featuring remarkable anthropoid sarcophagi from Sidon. Three halls proudly exhibit intricately detailed stelae and sarcophagi, most dating between AD 140 and 270. Many of these sarcophagi bear resemblance to miniature temples or residential structures. Be sure not to miss the Sidamara Sarcophagus from Konya (3rd century AD) with its interlocking horses' legs and playful cherubs. The last room in this section houses Roman floor mosaics and examples of ancient Anatolian architecture.
The final gem of the complex is the Tiled Pavilion, an elegant structure commissioned in 1472 by Mehmet the Conqueror. The portico, featuring 14 marble columns, was reconstructed during Sultan Abdül Hamit I's reign (1774–89) after the original structure was destroyed in 1737.
Within this pavilion, you will encounter an exquisite display of Seljuk, Anatolian, and Ottoman tiles and ceramics dating from the late 12th to the early 20th century. The collection includes exquisite İznik tiles produced during the period between the mid-14th and 17th centuries when the city was renowned for creating the world's finest colored tiles. Upon entering the central room, your eyes will be drawn to the stunning mihrab from the İbrahim Bey İmâret in Karaman, built in 1432, a captivating centerpiece of this extraordinary exhibit.