Great Palace Mosaics Museum

The Great Palace Mosaics Museum is a mosaic museum located in Istanbul's Sultanahmet Square, Arasta Pazar. The museum building was built on the ruins of the peristyle (a courtyard with an open middle) part of the Grand Palace (Bukaleon Palace), on which the Blue Mosque Bazaar was built, the floor of which is covered with mosaics. Mosaics of other parts of the peristyle were also brought to the museum building from where they were located.

The Great Palace Mosaics Museum was opened in 1953 under the Istanbul Archeology Museums, and in 1979 it was attached to the Hagia Sophia Museum. With the end of the last restoration in 1982, with an agreement between the General Directorate of Monuments and Museums and the Austrian Academy of Sciences, the museum took its current form.

With a surface area of ​​1872 m2, this mosaic is one of the largest and most diverse landscape depictions from late antiquity to the present day. The surviving mosaic pieces feature 150 different themes, narrated using 90 human and animal figures. Nature-oriented paintings cover topics such as the life of the shepherd in the open air, the courage of the business peasants and the hunters. In addition to children playing, animals grazing in the wild or on the meadow, imaginary creatures from mythological animal stories or fairy tales are also animated.

The peristyle, where the mosaics were located, was part of the Great Palace, on which the Blue Mosque market was built in the following periods, dating from 450 to 650 AD. Peristil was built on the same axis with these structures in order to be compatible with Hagia Sophia and Hagia Eirene, one of the important structures of the period.

St. Andrews University excavations in the 1930s unearthed this large peristyle and several other structures in the middle terrace of the palace. These structures on an artificial terrace made of underground domes covered an area of ​​approximately 4.000 square meters. The area of ​​the peristyle, measuring 2 x 66,50, was 55,50 m3.690,75. The halls around the courtyard were 2 meters deep and were surrounded by 9 x 9 Corinthian columns about 10 meters high. Justinian I zamWhile the peristyle was renewed at the time (527 - 565), the floor was covered with mosaics found in the museum today.

During the research project work, there were various discussions about the date the mosaic was made. These controversies were resolved by the same results of three different drillings in an undamaged section of the mosaic in the northeast hall. Accordingly, the new courtyard with mosaic and columns was built in the same period. The history of the building was clarified with the help of ceramic fragments and construction residues in the insulation floor under the mosaic. Ceramic pieces belonging to a kind of amphora, called the Gaza amphora, were found in this layer. In the last period of the 5th century, wines made from grapes grown in the oases of the Najaf Desert were transported to the entire Mediterranean with these amphoras. Fragments of various ceramic products from the last quarter of the same century were also found on the insulation layer. Thus, it turned out that the mosaic was built in the first half of the 6th century, most likely by the First Justinian.

The southwest, northwest and northeast halls of the peristyle were heavily damaged after the First Justinian period due to the construction of other structures in this area. The 250 m2 mosaic unearthed was approximately one eighth of the entire mosaic area. After the conservation work and the construction of the museum building, the mosaic on the floor of the northeast hall was opened to visitors in its original space.


The mosaic technique that emerged in Anatolia was developed in Greece and Italy for centuries. Masters from all corners of the Byzantine Empire probably gathered together to make these mosaics in the Grand Palace. Mosaic flooring consisted of three layers.

  1. At the bottom, a crushed stone layer (statumen) with a thickness of 0,30 - 0,50 m was laid. 9 cm of mortar was poured on this layer.
  2. For the second layer, an insulating layer of compacted loam, earth and charcoal was prepared. A tougher layer (rudus) was laid over this layer, mostly of broken tiles.
  3. On top of these, there was a seating mortar (nucleus) on which the original mosaic would be placed.

For the mosaic on these layers, 5 mm sized colored cubes consisting of limestone and marble with subtle color differences, glass in red, blue, green and black tones, rust colored clay pieces, terracotta and even precious stones were used. About 40.000 cubes were required for one square meter of area. The number of cubes used in the whole mosaic was approximately 75 - 80 million.

The border of kenger leaves, the mask that cuts the leaf strip, the animal figure filling the space between the leaves and the wave bands on both sides of the ornament

The main picture of the mosaic was 6 meters wide. Other than that, there were colorful depictions lined up on four frieze strips. On the inner and outer edges of the mosaic, there was a 1,5 meter wide frame with ornaments in the form of a cenger leaf bolt. This ornamental strip was cut with large mask figures at regular intervals. The spaces between the spirals of Kenger leaf were filled with colorful animal and fruit depictions. Thus, on both sides of the border frame, which was associated with the world of God Dionysos, there were also a wave belt consisting of multi-colored geometric shapes.

The main painting of the mosaic had to be viewed from the peristyle's courtyard side. The direction of movement in the pictures was from left to right in the northeast hall, that is, towards the palace hall on the southeast edge of the peristyle. The painting included people hunting and playing, various animals, paradise-like depictions of nature, and elements from various epics. Since there was no explanatory text anywhere in the painting, it did not need explanations for those who saw the painting at that time to understand the themes depicted. The paintings in the mosaic were collected in eight main groups.

  1. Hunting scenes: Scenes of horse or foot hunters, armed with a sword or spear, hunting animals such as tigers, lions, leopards, wild boars, gazelles and rabbits.
  2. Fighting animals: Fighting scenes between animals, depicted as pairing between an eagle and a snake, a snake with a deer, an elephant and a lion.
  3. Free animals: Animals such as bears, monkeys, mountain goats, grazing cattle and horse herds that roam and feed freely in nature.
  4. Village life: Heaven-like scenes such as sheep and goose herders, fishermen, peasants milking goats and women breastfeeding their children.
  5. Country life: Scenes depicting field workers, watermills, and springs.
  6. Children: Children riding camels, taking care of animals or playing hoop games.
  7. Myths: Bellerophon's battle with the Chimera, mythological depictions such as the child Dionysus seated on Pan's shoulders.
  8. Exotic creatures: Scenes depicting exotic animals such as lion or tiger figures with half a bird, a mixture of bird and leopard, an animal with a giraffe head.

Various motives

Tiger hunting: Two hunters with long hunting spears fight a tiger thrown towards them. The legs of the hunters, wearing sleeveless shirts, wide shoulder scarves and tunics, were also wrapped with bandages for protection. The crests on the clothes of hunters, resembling the coat of arms of the guard regiment, suggest that the hunters were members of the palace.

Wild boar hunting: A hunter wearing a coat-like garment and sandals on his feet kneels and waits with a spear in his hand. A wild boar rushes over the hunter and spear from the left side. There are bleeding wounds on various parts of the skin of the gray-black animal.

Lion hunt: The hunter on a horse pointed his stretched bow at the lion who was about to attack from behind the horse. The hunter wore trousers and boots under a tunic with decorations on his chest and reaching his knee. The lion hunt, which was a privileged entertainment for nobles and even kings in the Hellenistic period, took place in the mosaic with such a depiction.

Eagle with snake: The struggle between the eagle and the snake is a common theme in antiquity, and symbolizes the overcoming of the darkness by light. This motif, which is even on the emblems of the Roman legions, is depicted with a snake surrounding the whole body of the cards on the mosaic.

Lion and Bull: The lion and the bull are depicted in this motif as two equal warriors. The angry bull with its legs spread and its head bowed to the ground has stuck horns into the side of the lion. Meanwhile, the lion put his teeth on the back of the bull.

Snake with deer: The struggle of these two animals, which are constantly seen as enemies in Greek stories, is also included in the mosaic. The snake has surrounded the deer's entire body, just like in its struggle with the eagle.

Bear group: In the foreground, a male bear attacks a kneeling man wearing a tunic, a scarf and sandals. In the background, a female bear climbed onto a pomegranate tree to feed her young.

Stallion, mare and foal: A symbol of peaceful rural life, free grazing horses were one of the symbols engraved on sarcophagi during the imperial period. The mosaic also shows a brown split, a gray mare and foal.

Bird hunting monkey: A tailless monkey sits under a palm tree whose branches are full of fruit. There is a brown falcon in the cage on the back of the monkey. The monkey tries to catch the birds in the branches of the tree with the help of the pole in his hand.

Breastfeeding mother and dog: The figure of a breastfeeding mother comes first in the scenes referring to Heaven. The picture in the mosaic is reminiscent of the depiction of Isis holding his child, Horus, the symbol of fertility. A pointy-nosed dog is sitting on the woman's left and looking up at her.

Fisherman: In a place on the water's edge surrounded by boulders on the right and left sides, he is pulling the fish he caught with a fishing rod. There is a basket on the rocks where the fisherman puts the fish he caught. There are two more fish in the blue green water where the fisherman stretches his feet. The fisherman is depicted in simple clothes and tanned.

The shepherd milking goats: Next to a shed made of reed and covered with leaves, an old man with a beard in a red shepherd's suit similar to a coat milks a longhaired goat. On the left side, a boy in a blue tunic carries a milk jug. In Roman culture, many similar depictions can be found on tombstones. This situation suggests that the artist made this description by looking at a model book containing examples of similar paintings.

Farmers working in the field: In most of the mosaic, simple people are depicted in rural life. Similar paintings of working farmers here were found in Roman sarcophagi and some textiles. Pictured is two bare-footed men in a chiton, a one-piece garment strapped at the waist, working in the field. The one on the right is depicted pulling up his pickaxe, while the other is depicted pulling the work tool.

The structure on the fountain: A tower-like building is seen on a square ground. There is a thick stemmed pistachio tree on the fountain next to the building. The water inside the building is reached by passing an arched entrance. Water flowing through a lion's head-like gutter pours into a rectangular pool.

Children playing in the circle: Four children are seen turning the circle in two with sticks in their hands. Two of them wore blue striped tunics while the other two wore green embroidered tunics. Blue and green colors were used to separate different teams in hippodrome races, and in politics, to separate supporters of different views. Two columns of return (metae) are visible on the stage. This shows that the children are playing on a racetrack. Depictions of children playing are also frequently crafted in Roman sarcophagi.

Little boy and dog:A child with chubby lines, a little big head compared to his body, with bare feet and a red tunic is depicted caressing his dog.

Two children and guide on camel back: This subject is mentioned several times in the palace mosaic. Two children in chitons are sitting on the back of a dromedary camel. A man in boots holds the reins of the camel. The front child, with a crown on his head and a pet bird in his hand, belongs to a noble family. Thanks to the bright white light falling on the children's clothes, the motif is lively.

Dionysos sitting on Pan's shoulders in the appearance of a child: In this scene depicting the triumphal procession of Dionysus in India, the god is unusually seen as a child. Wearing a crown of leaves, the boy holds Pan's horns. A post hangs from Pan's left shoulder and he has a double flute in his hands. Behind Pan is an African elephant and the elephant rider's right hand holding a stick.

Chimera with Bellerophon: Only the tip of the spear of the hero, which attacked the monster with the hind legs of his horse named Pegasus, remained from the Bellerophon depiction. All three heads of the monster are in good condition. While a trident tongue protrudes from the mouth of the lion's head of the monster, the hero pointed his spear to the head of the goat. The head of a snake is seen at the end of the snake-shaped tail of the monster.

Winged Lion: The winged lion is one of the epic creatures depicted anatomically as real animals that exist in nature. Only one of the feathered wings of the gray-brown lion is visible.

Okapi-headed winged leopard: In this depiction, which resembles the animal described as a winged single horn in ancient texts, a creature with a leopard body is seen. The creature's head and neck, on the other hand, are not exactly like an animal. It has a horn-like extension on its forehead, and four sharp teeth inside its red mouth. The creature's head structure is similar to the okapi.

Winged tigress: It is understood that this creature, whose head, legs and tail resembles a tiger, is female due to its prominent nipples. The animal has two large wings and a pair of horns on its head. A dark green lizard is seen in the animal's mouth, with which it has its teeth.

Conservation project 

During the period when the mosaics were found, no special measures were taken for protection. Mosaic pieces in the southwest and northwest halls were poured into concrete slabs. The section in the northeast hall was left in place and protected by a wooden structure built around it. Until 1980, the mosaic was worn out due to the intervention of unauthorized persons and the influence of moisture and salt, beyond repair. The General Directorate of Monuments and Museums of the Republic of Turkey, seeking to cooperate with foreign institutions to save the mosaic, decided to work with the Austrian Academy of Sciences.

Dismantling the mosaic 

After the ground documentation and work plan were prepared, the mosaic began to be dismantled. The aim was to reassemble the dismantled mosaic pieces after fixing them to suitable concrete slabs. For this, the mosaic is glued to a special fabric using a flexible adhesive that can then be removed without leaving a trace, and 0,5 to 1 m2 divided into 338 pieces in size. This shredding was done in a way that corresponds to the border lines or parts of the pictures that were already missing. The disassembled parts were kept on softwood planks with the bottom side up while waiting for the sequences.

Transfer to carrier plates 

In the temporary workshop established in Hagia Eirene, first the old mortar residues on the underside of the mosaic were cleaned and a new protective mortar was poured. Then, a lightweight construction made of aluminum honeycombs and artificial resin laminate was prepared and glued to the back of the mosaic pieces to reassemble the dismantled pieces. After the application of this technique, borrowed from the aircraft industry, the actual conservation process began.

Cleaning the surface 

The dirty and acidic air of the city of Istanbul caused the mosaic to lose its colors to a great extent with the corrosion that occurred on it due to its standing on the ground for centuries. Sea salt transported by air to this area close to the sea and cement mortars poured on the mosaic in previous periods accelerated this deterioration. Basically, a technique called JOS was used to remove this layer of dirt and corrosion on the mosaic. A mixture made of water and dolomite stone flour was sprayed onto the mosaic with a pressure not exceeding 1 bar to avoid damaging the mosaic. Thus, it was sprayed on the mosaic using other chemical and mechanical methods in places. Thus, the mosaic surface was cleaned using other chemical and mechanical methods in places.

Assembling the parts

The mosaic pieces were combined in the workshop in clumps before being transported to the museum area. In order to reduce the damage to the edge portions during transportation of the mosaic pieces, as many pieces as possible were combined in one carrier sheet. A mixture of artificial resins with various properties was used to bond the mosaic pieces to the boards. It was tried to make the borders between the pieces that would come side by side when placed in place, to be as flat as possible. Thus, when it was finalized, the formation of disturbing lines in the mosaic was prevented. The outermost parts of the mosaic were fortified with a fluid artificial resin.

Missing sections 

The missing parts of the mosaic made the pictorial surface look like a fragmented painting. It was not preferred to reconstruct these sections in accordance with their original state. Instead, it was decided that these sections should be filled in an inexpensive way. Thus, the original parts of the mosaic were highlighted. In addition, the visitors were enabled to examine the different depictions that make up the picture separately. The filling sections consisted of coarse-grained mortar underneath and a protective layer spread over it. The color of this mortar was determined to match the dominant background color of the mosaic.

Most of the floor in the northeast hall had disappeared in antiquity and in the middle ages. These sections, which caused large gaps between mosaic pieces, were covered with cement mortar in the previous periods. This caused significant damage to the mosaic. As part of the conservation project, these missing areas were filled with dolomite stones, which were crumbled and given a suitable color to the mosaic, without containing fine sand.

Laying the mosaic in place 

During the preparation of the floor where the mosaic would be placed, a method to prevent moisture in the environment and provide air circulation was required. For this, a moisture-proof concrete floor was prepared on the ground. On top of that, a second wooden floor was placed that could ventilate from below. Measures were taken to prevent pests and mold in the environment. First a synthetic fabric was placed on the wooden floor, and on top of that a 7 cm layer of rubble made of light and flat-grained tuff pebbles was placed. On top of these, stainless aluminum pipes were laid to form a profile along the edges of the carrier plates. These were used for the backing and leveling of the mosaic. In addition, the mosaic was mounted to the wooden floor with brass nails and discs fixed to the filling in the missing parts.

New museum building 

The wooden building, which was built first and could not preserve the mosaic, caused great damage to the mosaic over the years. The museum was closed in 1979 when major defects were discovered on the roof of the building. While the conservation work was continuing, a new museum building was built. The museum was reopened with the building completed in 1987. In this structure, improvements were later made to the roof and walls to keep the indoor climate stable.

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