On the opposite side of the column-filled courtyard to the Museum of the Ancient Orient is this imposing neoclassical building, which was wrapped in scaffolding and tarpaulin and undergoing renovation when we visited. It houses an extensive collection of classical statuary and sarcophagi plus a sprawling exhibit documenting İstanbul’s history.
The museum’s major treasures are sarcophagi from sites including the Royal Necropolis of Sidon (Side in modern-day Lebanon), unearthed in 1887 by Osman Hamdi Bey. The extraordinary Alexander Sarcophagus and Mourning Women Sarcophagus were not on display when we visited. However, some good pieces from the statuary collection are exhibited on the way into the museum, including a marble head of Alexander from Pergamum.
On the 1st floor, a fascinating albeit dusty exhibition called İstanbul Through the Ages traces the city’s history through its neighbourhoods during different periods: Archaic, Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman. On the 2nd floor is the museum’s ‘Anatolia and Troy Through the Ages’ exhibition; on the 3rd, the ‘Neighbouring Cultures of Anatolia, Cyprus, Syria and Palestine’ exhibition was closed at the time of writing.
When we visited, a separate entrance led to an impressive collection of ancient grave-cult sarcophagi from Syria, Lebanon, Thessalonica and Ephesus, including impressive anthropoid sarcophagi from Sidon. Three halls are filled with the amazingly detailed stelae and sarcophagi, most dating from between AD 140 and 270. Many of the sarcophagi look like tiny temples or residential buildings; don’t miss the Sidamara Sarcophagus from Konya with its interlocking horses’ legs and playful cherubs. The last room in this section contains Roman floor mosaics and examples of Anatolian architecture from antiquity.