Lonely Planet review
It may not pull the number of visitors that flock to nearby Topkapı, but this superb museum complex shouldn't be missed. It can be reached easily by walking down the slope from Topkapı's First Court, or by trudging up the hill from the main gate of Gülhane Park. Allow at least two hours for your visit.
The complex is divided into three buildings: the Archaeology Museum (Arkeoloji Müzesi), the Museum of the Ancient Orient (EskiŞark Eserler Müzesi) and the Tiled Kiosk (Çinili Köşk). These museums house the palace collections, formed during the 19th century by archaeologist and artist Osman Hamdi Bey (1842–1910) and added to greatly since the republic was proclaimed. Excellent interpretive panels are in both Turkish and English.
The first building on your left as you enter is the Museum of the Ancient Orient. Overlooking the park, it was designed by Alexander Vallaury and built in 1883 to house the Academy of Fine Arts. It displays Anatolian pieces from Hittite empires and pre-Islamic items collected from the Ottoman Empire.
A Roman statue of the god Bes greets you as you enter the Archaeology Museum on the opposite side of the courtyard. Turn left and walk into the dimly lit rooms beyond, where the museum's major treasures – sarcophagi from the Royal Necropolis of Sidon – are displayed. Osman Hamdi Bey unearthed these sarcophagi in Sidon (Side in modern-day Lebanon) in 1887 and in 1891 persuaded the sultan to build this museum to house them.
In the first room you will see a sarcophagus that is Egyptian in origin, but which was later reused by King Tabnit of Sidon; his mummy lies close by. Also here is a beautifully preserved Lycian Sarcophagus made from Paros marble and dating from the end of the 5th century. Note its beautifully rendered horses, centaurs and human figures. Next to this is the Satrap Sarcophagus, with its everyday scenes featuring a provincial governor.
After admiring these, pass into the next room to see the famous marble Alexander Sarcophagus, one of the most accomplished of all classical artworks. It's known as the Alexander Sarcophagus because it depicts the Macedoniangeneral and his army battling the Persians. (It was actually sculpted for King Abdalonymos of Sidon, not Alexander, though.) Truly exquisite, it is carved outof Pentelic marble and dates from the last quarter of the 4th century BC. One side shows the Persians (long pants, material headwear) battling with the Greeks. Alexander, on horseback, sports a Nemean Lion's head (the symbol of Hercules) as a head dress. The other side depicts the violent thrill of a lion hunt. Remarkably, the sculpture has remnants of its original red-and-yellow paintwork.
At the end of this room the Mourning Women Sarcophagus also bears traces of its original paintwork. Its depiction of the women is stark and very moving.
The rooms beyond house an impressive collection of ancient grave cult sarcophagi from Syria, Lebanon, Thessalonica, Ephesus and otherparts of Anatolia.
After seeing these, turn back and walk past Bes to room 4, the first of six galleries of statues. Look for the Ephebos of Tralles in room 8 and the exquisite head of achild from Pergamum in room 9.
The annexe behind the main ground-floor gallery is home to a Children's Museum. While children will be bored stiff with the dioramas of early Anatolian life, they will no doubt be impressed by the large-scale model of the Trojan Horse, which they can climb into. Beside the Children's Museum is a fascinating exhibition entitled 'In the Light of Day', which focuses on the archaeological finds that have resulted from the city's huge Marmaray transport project. The exhibition continues downstairs, where there is also an impressive gallery showcasing Byzantine artefacts.
If you have even a passing interest in İstanbul's rich archaeology, don't miss the mezzanine level showcasing 'İstanbul Through the Ages'. After seeing the displays here you can appreciate how much of the ancient city remains covered.
The last of the complex's museum buildings is the gorgeous Tiled Kiosk of Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror. Thought to be the oldest surviving non-religious Turkish building in İstanbul, it was built in 1472 as an outer pavilion of Topkapı Palace and was used for watching sporting events. It now houses an impressive collection of Seljuk, Anatolian and Ottoman tiles and ceramics.