An ongoing project seeks to position Turkey as the “world’s largest museum,” based on the staggering wealth of archaeological and historical sites to be found here. Anyone that’s ever road tripped around Turkey will know how frequently the little brown signs that point to yet another historical site occur – each signposting something more intriguing than the last. There’s so much to see that if you venture away from Turkey’s most popular sites, such as Ephesus, Troy, or Pamukkale, you’ll most likely have the place to yourself. The winter months are an ideal time for a bit of historic holidaying - the tourist throngs are a fading memory and the sun doesn’t beat down too hard on the history enthusiast’s head.
Archaeological museums in Istanbul and elsewhere
Istanbul Archaeology Museums
Located near the Topkapı Palace, on what used to be the grounds of the outer parks of the palace, the Istanbul Archaeological Museums were founded in 1881 by Osman Hamdi Bey. The complex includes three museums: The Archaeological Museum, the Ancient Orient Museum, and the Tiled Kiosk Museum. Alemdar Caddesi Osman Hamdi Bey Yokuşu Sokak, Sultanahmet; T: (0212) 520 77 40
Sadberk Hanım Museum
Founded in 1980 by the Koç family, the Sadberk Hanım Museum was the first private museum in Turkey. Initially housed in a single 19th-century yalı (waterfront mansion), it was later expanded and now includes a more modern yalı next door. The museum showcases a rich collection of Anatolian art, antiques, and relics dating back to 6000 BC; archaeological remains ranging from the Neolithic to the Byzantine eras; Islamic art from the Ottoman era; and rare collections of ceramics, silks, and other artworks from Central and East Asia. Büyükdere Caddesi No. 27-29, Sariyer; T: (0212) 242 38 13
Rezan Has Museum
The Rezan Has Museum is housed in a former cigarette factory. The main attractions of the museum are a Byzantine cistern called the Karanlık Çeşme (Dark Fountain), and the ruins of an Ottoman-era hamam (Turkish bath), both of which constitute most of the museum. The permanent exhibition here consists of artifacts dating from the Neolithic to the Seljuk periods. There is currently an exhibition of Urartian jewelry, on until July. Kadir Has University, Kadir Has Caddesi, Cibali; T: (0212) 533 65 32
Ankara Museum of Anatolian Civilizations
Although based in Ankara, we had to include this museum for its stunning collection of artifacts dating back thousands of years, many of which were discovered at the above-mentioned sites. Arranged in chronological order, the exhibits take you on a fascinating journey through human history itself – not to be missed. Gözcü Sokak No. 2, Ulus, Ankara; T: (0312) 324 31 60
Antalya Archaeology Museum
Undoubtedly one of the finest museums in the country, it proves that this region is about so much more than sun, sea, and sand. In fact the southwest coast is littered with ancient sites, and this museum has scooped up many of the local finds, exhibiting just 5,000 of its 30,000 artifacts spread across 13 exhibition halls and an open-air gallery. Konyaaltı Caddesi No.88, Antalya; T: (0242) 238 56 88
‘The World’s Largest Museum: Turkey’ is a joint project of the Republic of Turkey’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism, TÜRSAB Museum Initiative. Bilkent Kültür Gelişimi (BKG), and Anadolu Efes. It consists of a 13-part TV series, a hefty book, and an exhibition currently on tour around Turkey. It looks back upon 12,500 years of Anatolian heritage, at the various peoples who inhabited this land, and at the traces they left behind.
The accompanying 13-part TV series covers Yarımburgaz Mağarası, Karain Mağarası, Çayönü, Göbeklitepe, Nevali Çori, Hacılar, Kuruçay, Ilpınar, Hasek Höyük, İkiztepe, Troya, Alişar, Alaca Höyük, Kultepe, Kanış, and Hattuşa. While we were unable to delve into all of these topics, we wanted to share some of our favorites.
The oldest settlement of the Chalcolithic Age was an important center of cult and art in the Bronze and Hittite periods as well as having Phrygian, Hellenistic, Roman, and Byzantine remains.
At the ‘Sphinx Gate,’ the hollow eyes are the distinguishing features of faces that have nearly faded away. The stone has discolored with time, and now the majestic sphinxes sport a rusty orange hue. The sides are elaborately engraved with a double-headed eagle grasping rabbits beneath it, amongst other symbolic carvings. Though those in situ are repliacs, the originals date back to the Hittite period (14th Century BC), built some 3,400 years later, guarding the city that once was. These days, a ramshackle village belies the grandeur that was once here, evidenced by the ornate gold, bronze, and copper artifacts found buried in 13 shaft graves or ‘Royal Tombs’, dating back to 2350-2150 BC and uncovered by German archaeologists in the 1910s.
The discoveries of ornately carved common-use circular temples in the southeast of Turkey caused scholars to rethink their beliefs on human history.
Known as the oldest temple in the world, this site dates back 12,000 years to around the 10th millennium BC (that’s a full 7,000 years before the UK’s Stonehenge). Göbeklitepe occupies an elevated location on a barren plateau close to Şanlıurfa in the area known as the ‘fertile crescent’ or the ‘cradle of civilization,’ which gave birth to the world’s first known societies. The discovery of circles of t-shaped carved stone pillars by German archaeologist Klaus Schmidt in 1994 was to revolutionize our understanding of human history; the construction of common worship temples of such magnitude before the invention of metal tools or pottery challenges previously held convictions about hunter-gatherer societies.
Simply one of the world’s most important archaeological finds, Çatal Höyük was founded a little before 7,500 BC, and was continually occupied for more than 1,500 years.
Much of what’s on show here is under a temporarily constructed cover, to protect the ongoing excavations, casting an eerie yellow light over the finds. Looking down into the dig site you can peer directly into the roof-entry Neolithic homes of our ancestors. There were not streets between houses, and the remaining walls show they lived cheek-by-jowl. What’s perhaps most poignant is the artwork that was discovered; wall paintings depicting molded animals, hand prints, geometric designs, and hunters teasing large animals were uncovered. The initial excavations in 1958 were led by the controversial British archaeologist James Mellart, later banned from Turkey, suspected of antiquities smuggling.
The center of a long-gone kingdom holds the secrets of the Hittites, and was the home of several important kings until it was ravaged by fire in 1,200 BC.
The site was first settled during the Early Bronze Age, but it was during the 17th century BC, when it became the capital of Hattuşili’s Hittite Old Kingdom, that it really entered its glory years. For the next 400 years or so it was occupied by Hittite peoples, despite on several occasions suffering at the hands of marauding hordes. Today the site is listed on the UNESCO World Heritage List and covers an impressive span of the fertile landscape that serves as an open-air museum, which is possible to drive around. It’s quite possible to spend a day here exploring the different gates, ramparts, and underground tunnels, enjoying the views out over rolling hills and the remains of the fortification walls that were built much later. Afterwards, it’s worth visiting the nearby Boğazköy Museum that contains some of its most impressive finds.
Archaeological tour companies
If you'd like to visit the above sites accompanied by expert guides, then why not book a tour with one of the following companies:
Based in the UK, Andante Travels are ‘experts in archaeological travel’ and take small, interested groups on tours around the world, led by archaeological and historical experts. Some of their tours include: Southeastern Turkey – between the Tigris and Euphrates; Central Turkey – Anatolia and Cappadocia; and Northeastern Turkey – from the Black Sea to Lake Van. www.andantetravels.com
Peter Sommer Travels
A company that was founded by archaeologist Peter Sommer, and which specializes in historical tours and gulet cruises such as: In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great; The Conquest of Asia Minor; Walking and Exploring Cappadocia and The Land of the Hittites; and Cruising the Carian Coast. www.petersommer.com
One of the most distinguished Turkish tour agencies, Fest Travel not only offers a wide array of cultural and historical tours around Istanbul, but also leads mini-breaks and excursions from the city. Some of their archaelogical options include: The Hittite Tour; Ephesus and Pergamum; and Antalya, Perge, Aspendos, and Side.
A timeline of Anatolian civilizations
- Paleolithic-Neolithic Age 300,000BP – 5500 BC
- Chalcolithic Age 5500 – 3000 BC
- Bronze Age 3000 – 1200 BC
- Hittite 1650 – 1200 BC
- Late Hittite 1200 – 700 BC
- Lykia 1200 – 330 BC
- Urartia: 800 – 550 BC
- Lydia 680 – 546 BC
- Archaic-Classical Hellenistic Period: 650 – 30 BC
- Persian Rule 546 – 330 BC
- Caria 546 – 330 BC
- Phrygia 8 – 5th centuries BC
- Rome 1st century BC – 395 AD
- Eastern Roman Empire 395 – 1453 AD
- Anatolian Turkish Emirates 11th – 15th Century AD
- Early Islam 7th – 13th Century AD
- Seljuk 1071 – 1308 AD
- The Ottoman State 1299 – 1922 AD
- Republic of Turkey 1923 - today