Thursday, August 26, 2010

Eight millennia underfoot

I spent last winter living in a building constructed in 1880 -- charmingly crumbling and ancient by my American standards, but representing just a blip in Istanbul time. Still, despite the perennial jokes about the "New Mosque" (completed in 1663) and the ever-present reminders like the big stone aqueduct looming over the highway, it's surprisingly easy to become inured to the fact that those massive walls you pass by on the bus to work every day were built in the 5th century, that beneath the streets you walk on to get home lie centuries of history -- 8,000 years of it, according to an engrossing show currently on display at the Sakıp Sabancı Museum.

Fellow expat Carpetblogger recommended the air-conditioned exhibit as a respite from the hot, sticky weather earlier this month, but we both had to agree "Legendary Istanbul" has a lot more going for it than just a well-functioning klima. The showstoppers are probably the ceiling projection of designs from domes around the city and the massive tent made out of carpets a la the ones that would have been set up for the sultans during their battle campaigns. But most noteworthy to me was a grouping of figurines recovered from the "Silahtarağa statues" (pictured, poorly, at right). Admittedly, I almost walked past with a dismissive glance -- another smattering of armless statues -- but then I noticed the familiar-looking name.

Needing to remind myself where Silahtarağa is -- and having overcome my typical resistance to walking around the museum with an audio-tour device stuck to my ear -- I learned that the statues had been uncovered during construction of the coal-fired power plant that later became the site of the SantralIstanbul college campus and museum complex. Which meant I had laid on the grass, looked at art, attended a water-activists' workshop, and eaten a passable prosciutto sandwich in the same place where those statues were made in the 4th century.

Personal connection aside, the Silahtarağa statues were apparently made to depict the famous mythological battle between the Greek gods and the giants. The victorious gods were carved out of smooth white stone while the defeated giants were fashioned from rough dark rock -- perhaps the earliest known example of heavy-handed Hollywood-style "white hat"/"black hat" symbolism.

TO VISIT: The "Legendary Istanbul" exhibit is on view until Sept. 26 at the Sakıp Sabancı Museum in Istanbul's Emirgan neighborhood. The museum is open Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Wednesday and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.

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