Sunday, June 27, 2010

In Praise of Small Museums

Child Feeding Donkey, Mosaic,
Great Palace Mosaic Museum (Büyük Saray Mozaikleri Müzesi),
Istanbul, Turkey

I like to write about the methodology of looking. I may be analyzing a particular work of art or a gallery exhibit no matter; my intention is always to enhance the experience of seeing. Today I praise one small museum but think about how museums of this size can focus one’s view and open up new vistas.

On a recent trip to Istanbul I was struck by the impact of a relatively overlooked museum in the shadow of the great Sultan Ahmet Mosque (the Blue Mosque).

The Mosaic Museum known as the Great Palace Mosaic Museum (Büyük Saray Mozaikleri Müzesi) is just a short walk from the hubbub of Sultanahmet Square and the surrounding preeminent attractions. Its rewards exceed its size. Here are the remains of the largest and finest mosaics to come down to us from late antiquity: the floor of the courtyard and peristyle (open courtyard with surrounding porticos) of Constantine the Great’s palace. The building is basically a cover for the mosaic floor. Constantine the Great (r. 306 - 337 AD) had the palace constructed to rival anything built in Rome. It stretched from the Hippodrome to the Sea of Marmara.

In the mid-1930s and again in the early 50s, excavations of the Arasta Bazaar, a small market close to the Sultan Ahmet Mosque, revealed the mosaics. Some 16 retailers lost their shops but a museum was born.

Interior of Great Palace Mosaic Museum
(Büyük Saray Mozaikleri Müzesi),
Istanbul, Turkey

The floor’s decoration, which probably dates from the Byzantine Emperor Justinian (r. 527-585), is approximately 19.7 feet in width by 29.5 feet in depth. Thousands of colored cubes, each just a bit over 2 inches, make up the compositions. Although only one seventieth of the original surface survives, there remain about 150 human and animal depictions. You see scenes of peasants and herdsmen, wild beasts, children playing, animals grazing, creatures from other countries, hunts and mythological beings. Be warned that what you see is not only enchanting but also at times gruesome.

Leopards Attacking Deer, Mosaic,
Great Palace Mosaic Museum (Büyük Saray Mozaikleri Müzesi),
Istanbul, Turkey

In the museum’s quiet space, you can easily imagine the great court and what this floor would have looked like before the centuries of wear from the countless feet that walked across it and, as an exposed open court, prior to the weathering caused by natural elements. What is extant is remarkable.

The explanatory wall panels, in Turkish and English, are clear and illuminating. You can, however, thoroughly enjoy the compositions without reading anything. While viewing, I heard echoes of the distant court – the chattering of history murmured in my ears as I reflected on the inventiveness and craftsmanship of the imperial artisans.

What a respite from the huge edifices that surround and that can overwhelm. The praiseworthy Mosaic Museum delights and should be visited. It reminds that when in a foreign place, tourists usually concentrate on the so-called required sites such the Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace Museum, Yerebatan Cistern, and Hippodrome in Istanbul. Vision and crowd weary, the traveler may find refreshment in a small place of merit – a second tier attraction may offer a first rate experience. Seek these places.

Please note: for information on the sites mentioned above, go to Istanbul city guide/

Great Palace Mosaic Museum (Büyük Saray Mozaikleri Müzesi)
Istanbul, Turkey

Address: Büyük Saray Mozaikleri Müzesi Torun Sokak Arasta Carşisi Sultanahmet
Entrance through Arasta Bazaar
Phone: 0212/518-1205
Hours: Tuesday – Sunday 9:00 AM to 4:30 PM (Closed Mondays)
Admission: 5 Turkish Lira (Approximately $3.00 at 1 TK = $.63)

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