The collection of classical antiquities displayed here is world class, although many of the galleries are looking a little tired. Within the grounds of Topkapı Palace, the museum was founded in the mid 19th century in an attempt to staunch the flow of antiquities being spirited out of the country by foreigners to fill the museums of Europe. The exhibits were originally housed in the Tiled Pavilion until the commissioning of a new building, since extended on three occasions to keep up with the growing contents. Even so, the bulk of the collection remains in storage due to lack of space and funds.
Greeting visitors is a grinning statue of Bes, a demonic Cypriot demigod of inexhaustible power and strength, qualities required of anyone hoping to get through even a fraction of the 20 galleries within. Starting with the pre-Classical world, they cover 5,000 years of history, with artefacts gathered from all over Turkey and the Near East and grouped thematically. Highlights include a collection of sixth- to fourth-century BC sarcophagi from a royal necropolis at Sidon, in modern Lebanon, of which the finest is known as the Alexander Sarcophagus because of the scenes of the Macedonian general's victory at Issus (333 BC) adorning its side panels.
Up on the first floor, Istanbul Through the Ages is a summary of the city's history presented through a few key pieces, including a serpent's head lopped off the column in the Hippodrome and a section of the iron chain that stretched across the Bosphorus to bar the way of invaders. One great innovation is a small children's area, complete with low cabinets. The museum also occasionally holds special exhibitions - check Time Out Istanbul magazine for details.
Across from the museum stands the Tiled Pavilion (Çinili Köşk), which dates back to 1472 and the reign of Sultan Mehmet II, Ottoman conqueror of Constantinople. Built in a Persian style, it was an imperial viewing stand that overlooked a large gaming field, now occupied by the main museum building. The pavilion displays some outstanding samples of Turkish tiles and ceramics from the Seljuk and Ottoman periods, dating from between the end of the 12th century and the beginning of the 20th century.
To the south, beside the main entrance, is the Museum of the Ancient Orient, containing antiquities from the Mesopotamian, Egyptian and Hittite cultures, including some wonderful monumental glazed-brick friezes from the main Ishtar Gate of sixth-century Babylon. There is also the world's first peace treaty (1283 BC), a clay tablet signed by the Hittite king Hattushilish III and Egyptian pharaoh Rameses II that ended a lengthy conflict between the two ancient rival empires.