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Great Palace Mosaic Museum, Istanbul

Great Palace Mosaic Museum, Istanbul

NB: The Great Palace Mosaic Museum will be closed for two years from 2016 for resoration and refurbishment.

Great Palace Mosaic Museum: the facts.

For once, I will stick to the facts. Confronted with mosaics of such beauty and intricacy, covering so great an area, made so long ago and depicting such an extraordinary range of subjects, I don’t even know where to begin. So I wont try. Look at the photos, break open your piggy bank, cajole your bank manager, have another look behind the back of the sofa, and book your flight now. The Great Palace Mosaic Museum of Istanbul is simply not to be missed.

DSCN6393An imperial palace

The palace was thought to have been built in the time of the Emperor Justinian I during the glory days of the Byzantine era which makes it close to 1,500 years old.  In the ensuring years, one empire fell and another took its place and parts of the palace were destroyed by successive building works but the mosaics, damaged and fragmented as they are, give us a glimpse of imperial power and artistic expression at its height.

DSCN6458Eighty million tesserae

The mosaics are composed of up to 80 million glass, terracotta and lime cubes – as many as 40,000 per square metre – and they cover 250 metres, one eighth, so we are told, of their original extent. One eighth. Golly. The boys, my stalwart mosaic spotting team, asked how long it would take to make and I showed them a little section of the mosaic no bigger than a three-leaved sprig like the one below, and said that would take me an hour. So, hmmmm, that means the whole thing would have taken…….


Mosaic designs

The mosaics at the Great Palace Mosaic Museum once decorated a series of colonnaded halls and consist of friezes in four strips, each scene, each motif, different and unique. This was not a formulaic work using ancient designs borrowed from previous generations. This was and is a work of breath-taking ingenuity and originality. The figures fizz with energy and life, the scenes are remarkably diverse and devoid of pretension, and the colours and intricacy of the works are undiminished by the passing of the centuries.

Take the faces for instance:

Not to mention the over-sized facial close ups above and below:



This was the same Justinian, remember, whose image is to seen up there in the apse of the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna opposite that of his wife, Theodora, and her retinue.

Basilica Di S. Vitale, Ravenna, Italy.

He was clearly a man who liked a bit of flash. This was the Justinian who spoke Latin as his first language and was determined to reinstate the power and prestige of the Roman empire. A pretty grand plan if ever there was one. He probably learnt to walk on Roman mosaic floors and yet he didn’t seek to copy the great mosaic masters of the past. That is not to say that the mosaics at the Great Palace Mosaic Museum do not include familiar themes, not least the hunting scenes:

But where else do you see an elephant strangling a lion?


A monkey and it’s feathered companion gathering dates from a palm tree:


Or a bear family gorging on the ripe fruit of an apple tree:


The mosaics include mythological creatures which are common themes in ancient designs:

But alongside them, right among them, are scenes of domestic life. Ordinary people getting on with their lives and taking pleasure in daily activities. A woman nurses a child as a dog looks on:DSCN6432

A donkey is offered some refreshment:DSCN6420

Children herd the geese:DSCN6431

These mosaics are so devoid of the pomp that one would expect of imperial palace life that I wonder (only my own little theory) if these colonnades provided a meeting place for ordinary citizens to come and bring their petitions to the palace officials.There is something just so refreshingly down to earth about the designs. Here is a man falling:

DSCN6378As his donkey guffaws:


A contemplative, or shepherd, sitting alone on a rock and gazing at, at what? We’ll never know.


A huntsman lifting his hound in that impulsive hug of delight one gives a beloved pet:


What makes the mind boggle, or mind my mind at least, is that this is only an eighth of the original. If we have such unremarkable acts as a woman bearing water could there have been depictions of washing being hung to dry, a family sitting down to eat, a soldier being greeted by his parents after long years away?


Oh dear. I promised you I would keep quiet and simply let the photographs shower into your electronic lap, but I cannot help myself. Let me stop, take a deep breath and stand back for you to enjoy them while I turn once more to savour the details:

And my favourite to finish:



  1. Alexandra

    Wow! How inspirational! These mosaics are amazing-the intricacy, the expression and the movement….true masterpieces.
    Helen you have inspired me to make a visit!

  2. Just visiting, after seeing your site mentioned on Jean’s Knitting! What a delight to see all these lovely images on a Monday. I once made a patchwork quilt using a design from the floor of St Marks in Venice, but of course that wasmade with tiles, not tesserae.

  3. Stephanie Taylor

    This is amazing art work! I wish I could make some just like it.I should save up to go some time and take lots of pictures.I can’t even chose a favorite!

  4. Lisa

    Hello! Years ago, as I was doing some online research for a social studies lesson, I came across the goats mosaic you shared at the top of this blog. It instantly captivated me, and without much thought I made it my screensaver. Over the past few years, I have looked at it every day and am endlessly delighted and fascinated by it. I have wanted to find out more about it but forgot where I first came across it and haven’t been able to find it since. But then I found it here in your blog! Would you happen to know where I can find more information about it? I know nothing about it except that it was found in Justinian’s palace. Also, now I am grateful that I have stumbled upon your blog! I am really enjoying reading your observations and descriptions of historic mosaics. Thank you so much for sharing. I am learning so much!

    1. Hi Lisa, Thanks for your lovely message. Unfortunately I dont know anything more than I wrote in the blog. If you like I can put a call out on Twitter where I follow and am followed by lots of academics who know a lot more than I do. Would that be helpful?

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