A Hidden Gem in Sultanahmet

Sometimes the most interesting moments on a vacation happen randomly, not after hours of careful planning. While wandering around the Sultanahmet area of Istanbul, I discovered a small museum that ended up being one of the most fascinating places I visited during my whole trip. The Mosaic Museum is on a small street directly behind the Blue Mosque and next to my favorite shopping spot, the Arasta Bazaar.

The museum

Formally known as the Museum of Great Palace Mosaics, the museum is a part of the larger Hagia Sophia Museum complex. It’s located next to the Blue Mosque in the historic Sultanahmet area at the heart of Istanbul. The mosaics, which date from about 500 AD, are from the Palace of Constantinople, which once stood on the site.They were once the floor of a large, covered outdoor arcade area.

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Two floors of galleries in two large spaces have one wall missing, opening to the large atrium space in the center showing the open floors. The walls are filled with large mosaic pieces and chunks, while the floors showcase larger fragments and full floor panels in-situ. In addition to the two levels of walkways and galleries, you can also walk on the ground level. I really enjoyed being able to get so up close and personal with the pieces, to see how they were constructed. Also, it was great to see the floor panels still in place, and to be able to see them as they were originally intended.

The museum’s signage and informational materials are excellent. The museum is a bit hidden, so it’s usually never crowded and a great place to escape the crowds at the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque.

The mosaics

The pieces were designed and executed by the some of the best craftsmen in the world, these were money-no-object adornments to the palace of the Sultan. The intricacy is amazing, the average size of the individual stones is 5 mm, slightly more than 1/8 inch. Equally amazing is how, 1500 years ago, artists were able to combine these tiny tiles into beautiful colorful images. Images in mosaic that depict movement, depth and still do what they were intended to do when originally constructed, impress their viewers. The tiles are made from colored stones, fired pottery and limestone, all surrounded by marble panels.

The most interesting aspect to me were the images of daily life. Bakers making bread, children riding a camel and children tending some geese. It was fascinating to see the clothing, jewelry and even the hairstyles of those ancient people. A majority of the mosaic subjects are daily life, with the others showing scenes from mythology.

Visitor information

The Museum of Great Palace Mosaics is closed on Mondays and open until 6 p.m. in the summer and 5 p.m. in the winter. Admission is 7 TL (about $3.50).

Getting there
Turkish Airlines is a great option from many US cities (Chicago, Boston, Houston, LA, New York). Economy and Economy Plus is inexpensive and their Business Class is like a foodie adventure in the sky, complete with seats that become flat beds.