x0x The Alexander Sarcophagus skender Lahti
- x0x The Alexander Sarcophagus skender Lahti
By Turgay Tuna*
Haghia Sophia, Topkap Palace and the Blue Mosque are the sights which
first come to mind when visiting Istanbul. But there is so much else to
see that a few days or even weeks would not suffice for them all. Among
them Istanbul Archaeological Museum is one that should really not be
missed. It contains an extraordinary collection, including the first
written peace treaty in the world, concluded after the Battle of Kadesh
fought between Ramses II of Egypt and the Hittite king Muvatallish in
the 13th century BC, the famous earthenware figurines of Myrina, gold
coins of King Croesus who minted the first coins in history, and
cuneiform Assyrian tablets. But among all these treasures, it is the
Alexander Sarcophagus which leaves the most lasting impression on those
who see it.
This great marble sarcophagus with its exquisite carved friezes is
called the Alexander Sarcophagus not because it belonged to King
Alexander the Great of Macedonia, whose tomb has never been found, but
because he is represented in the battle scenes along the sides. Dating
from the late 4th century BC, the sarcophagus is a remarkable work of
The sarcophagus was discovered in 1887 by Turkish archaeologist,
historian and painter Osman Hamdi Bey (whose paintings can be seen in
the Louvre and other art museums around the world) while excavating the
underground royal necropolis at Sidon in Lebanon. This and the other
sarcophagi found here were slid on rails down to the sea, and from
there carried by ship to Istanbul.
The carving on the sarcophagus is regarded as being among the most
exquisite examples of Hellenistic art ever discovered. Along each of
the sides are vividly depicted battle and hunting scenes in high relief
and astonishingly realistic detail.
Alexander drove the Persians back out of Anatolia and the Middle East
in the course of his empire forging campaign which began in 334 BC, and
so began the Hellenistic period of Greek influence over western Asia.
The influence was reciprocal, however, as towards the end of his life
Alexander married Persian princesses, wore Persian dress and adopted
the pomp and protocol of the Persian court. The way in which Greeks and
Persians were eventually united under Macedonian rule is symbolised by
the hunting scene on the sarcophagus in which Greeks and Persians are
shown hunting together.
The lid of the rectangular sarcophagus is in the form of a pitched roof
covered with tiles resembling fish scales, and there are small carved
friezes in the triangular pediments at either end. Traces of paint show
that the sarcophagus was once richly painted in bright colours. Beneath
the cornice, and along the base and edge of the lid are bands of egg
and dart moulding, and below these on the base a band of stylised vine
leaves. On either side of the lid are gargoyles in the form of
Studies by the German scholar Volkmar von Graeve have revealed that the
sarcophagus belonged to King Abdalonymos of Sidon, and the evidence
points to it having been sculpted and painted by Ionian craftsmen
living in Phoenicia and influenced by oriental art styles.
The battle scene on one of the short sides represents the Battle of
Gazza in 312 BC, in which King Abdalonymos was killed fighting the
Macedonians. The other short side depicts the king and his men hunting
One of the battle scenes on the pediments depicts Alexanders successor
Perdikkas being killed in camp during his Egyptian campaign, and the
other Persians and Greeks in battle.
The battle scene on one of the long sides depicts the Battle of Issus
between Alexander the Great and the Persians in 333 BC. On the other
long side Alexander and Abdalonymos are shown hunting a lion together.
One has only to look at the delicate carving of the horses, lion, boar
and other animals in the friezes, and the way in which the taut
muscles, distended veins and other anatomical details are depicted, to
appreciate the overwhelming and rare power of this spectacular work of
art. It is as if at any moment the frozen scene might burst into life
again, the panther spring and the warriors swing their axes.
The traces of colour which remain are still bright after 2300 years,
allowing us to imagine exactly what the sarcophagus looked like before
most of the vegetable and mineral pigments wore away. Originally the
weapons held by the soldiers and hunters, such as spears, axes and
swords were plated in gold or silver, but grave robbers stripped all
this metal ornamentation away apart from that belonging to one of the
axes which is now preserved in the Museum.
The Alexander Sarcophagus and others discovered in the subterranean
sepulchre at Sidon are exhibited in a large gallery of their own, in
which the lighting effects recreate the atmosphere of the underground
tomb chamber, so that they look just as they must have done when Osman
Hamdi first set eyes on them.
* Turgay Tuna is a freelance writer