Mission to the Istanbul Archaeology Museums: Rediscovery of the Genoese Inventory

As a part of the ERC GRAPH-EAST led by Dr Estelle Ingrand-Varenne and acting as a postdoc researcher for the project team, I visited the Istanbul Archaeology Museums for three weeks between January–February 2023, where I had a valuable chance to visit its storages in order to document the Genoese lapidary artifacts and it has eventually become a very fruitful journey. The mission primarily aimed to document two important sets from the museum inventory, being the mural inscriptions that were removed from the Galata Walls, and the tombstones that were brought from the Arab Mosque, formerly the Church of San Domenico.

The Galata suburb of Constantinople / Istanbul, located on the other side of the Golden Horn beyond the main Historical Peninsula part of the city, was a renowned and thriving Genoese colony under the name of Pera between 1267–1453. During this period, the Genoese gradually expanded their trade quarter, which eventually reached an area between the modern Tophane, Karaköy, Azapkapı and Kuledibi neighbourhoods all along the Bosphorus as well as the Golden Horn. The Genoese surrounded this area with walls and towers in different stages, where each significant construction was usually commemorated by a monumental mural slab, having the coats of arms of the Byzantine Empire, the Republic of Genoa, the doge of Genoa and the podesta of Pera. Moreover, inscriptions in Latin accompanied the heraldic devices and provided noteworthy information about the defensive works themselves; by whom and when they were executed. Among the approximately 45 mural slabs that were ever documented from the Genoese period of Galata, fifteen inscribed examples belong to the inventory of the museum today. They were primarily compiled and published by Victor Marie de Launay in the 19th century, in a time when the Galata Walls were started to be demolished for new urban development and the mural slabs were removed to the museum. Later studies of Luigi Tommaso Belgrano and Ettore Rossi not only updated as well as elaborated the information about them but also provided detailed visuals for the first time.

One of the places that the Genoese residents of the Pera colony preferred to be buried in was the Church of San Domenico, which belonged to the Dominican convent in Pera. The church was erected in the first quarter of the 14th century on the plot of a former Byzantine church dedicated to Saint Irene and it then had become a major shrine of the colony. Following the Ottoman conquest in 1453, the church was converted into a mosque and renamed as the Cami-i Kebir (Great Mosque) of Galata. Afterwards, it started to be called as the Arab Mosque because of the resettled Muslim fugitives from the Iberian Peninsula during the Reconquista.

After several destructive fires and subsequent repairs, the mosque had its final major restoration in the 1910s. Until that time only a couple of Genoese tombstones from the building were known and briefly mentioned by scholars. However, when the carpets and wooden floorings were removed, more than a hundred white marble Genoese tombstones appeared, which once embellished the floor of the nave. The common arrangement of those tombstones includes the coats of arms of the families, floral ornaments, crosses, and inscriptions in Latin, which provide information about the deceased members and to some extent their stories. The tombstones were removed from the floor and taken to the museum. 106 examples in total were compiled and studied by Eugenio Dalleggio d’Alessio in 1942, including transcriptions, commentary and most importantly black and white photographs for all. Yet, during the 1980s, approximately ten more funerary slabs, formerly omitted, were studied by Siegrid Düll and were added to the aforementioned group. A joint effort by Düll and Johannes Cramer helped to correct some dating mistakes of Dalleggio d’Alessio, though the primary information about the funerary inventory and urban history of Pera continued to base on his breakthrough study.

In the Istanbul Archaeology Museums as of the present day, the Genoese lapidary artifacts can be found in six different sections, being two open courtyards and four storages inside different buildings. Two tombstones are located in the middle of the so-called Garden 5 to the northeast of the main museum building, which serves as the Archaeological Museum itself (Figure 1). Roughly two dozen funerary and mural artifacts are stored inside three galleries of the so-called Storage 27 that is the basement floor of the main museum building right below the exhibition halls of today. A dozen funerary and mural slabs still keep their exhibition positions in the former Galata section of the “Istanbul through Ages” hall, or the so-called Storage 34 for the museum directorate, which was formerly open to public on the second floor of the annex building behind the main museum building. Due to renovation works that will start soon, this additional building was entirely closed to visits (Figures 2-3). The bulk of the Genoese lapidary artifacts are stored below the ground level of the museums’ main courtyard, in a lower terrace between the Museum of the Ancient Orient and the Museum of Islamic Art (Tiled Kiosk) as the remaining components of the museum complex (Figures 4-5). In this walled area, next to the Gülhane Park, there is a group of barrel-vaulted chambers in front of a courtyard, or the so-called Garden 4. The elongated chambers continue towards the steep topography right below the open-air cafeteria area in the museums’ main courtyard. The artifacts are almost entirely kept in adjacent two of them, namely the Storage 10 and Storage 11, where a few examples can be seen also in the Garden 4 just outside. In addition, a final trio is currently on display in the recently restored Galata Tower, on loan from the museum (Figure 6). Nevertheless, it must be stated that the Galata Walls as well as the Arab Mosque still have intact lapidary artifacts on several hidden sections despite all the aforementioned demolitions and transportations since the late 19th century (Figures 7-8).

Figure 1: Plan of the Istanbul Archaeology Museums and the visited storages during the mission (after Istanbul Archaeology Museums).
Figure 2: Istanbul Archaeology Museums’ main section, the Archaeological Museum (Istanbul Archaeology Museums).
Figure 3: Galata section of the “Istanbul through Ages” exhibition hall in the Archaeological Museum, currently closed to visits due to renovations (Hasan Sercan Saglam, 2015).
Figure 4: Museum of the Ancient Orient (Istanbul Archaeology Museums).
Figure 5: Museum of Islamic Art (Tiled Kiosk) (Istanbul Archaeology Museums).
Figure 6: Exhibition of Galata slabs in the Galata Tower (Hasan Sercan Saglam, 2023).
Figure 7: Mural slab on the Galata walls, with an inscription giving the name of Podesta Stefano de Marini and dated 1435 (Hasan Sercan Saglam, 2023).
Figure 8: Reused Genoese tombstone on the Late Ottoman minbar inside the Arab Mosque (Hasan Sercan Saglam, 2023).

Thanks to the permission given by the museum directorate after a series of official correspondences concerning the aims and objectives of the ERC GRAPH-EAST, I was able to visit the storages and document the artifacts in person during the 3-week period. Throughout my visit, I received warm welcoming and generous help from the museum directorate as well as the colleagues from its stone artifacts department. I must admit that especially all the kind efforts and wise guidance by Mr Emrah Kahraman as an expert archaeologist in the stone artifacts department literally paved the way for this challenging mission on the site. Locating the artifacts and making them suitable for a proper documentation were not easy tasks, given the storages that are entirely filled with priceless artifacts from many different historical periods, also an average weight of 150 kilograms for each slab that I studied. Small adjustments like moving the objects for better light and cleaning them for clear photographic documentation were not only inevitable but also physically demanding.

Meanwhile, the Knights Hospitaller and Venetian lapidary material including inscribed tombstones and mural slabs were actually a surprise for me to see in the storages of the museum. They were individually brought from Rhodes and Cyprus during the late 19th century for some unknown reason, before those territories were separated from the Ottoman Empire. While the ERC GRAPH-EAST includes those regions too, concerning the Medieval Latin epigraphy in the East Mediterranean, I was totally unaware of such a collection kept in the storages of the Istanbul Archaeology Museums, perhaps long forgotten. It was not only a coincidence but also an advantage, because if I would aim to find them in Greece or Cyprus, visiting the sites abroad would require different plans and procedures in cooperation with foreign authorities. Previously, in summer 2022, I visited the Bodrum Castle and documented the Knights Hospitaller inscriptions there. It was the first time that I acquainted myself with the Knights Hospitaller context. Like an intern, I started to learn almost all the basic information related to that period from scratch. Likewise, the visit to Cyprus as the whole project team once again in summer 2022 was a totally new experience for me in the context of the Venetian legacy in the East Mediterranean. Hence, seeing transported artifacts related to both the Knights Hospitaller and the Venetians in Istanbul was a very unexpected occasion but thanks to the experiences that were still quite fresh in my mind, I immediately recognized the pieces in question and obtained information about them from the museum directorate, which totally deserve a separate study also from a historical point of view concerning their long life ending up in a dark storage. Field missions and visits to museum storages always bring surprises.

One of the most significant outcomes of my visit to the Istanbul Archaeology Museums is noticing that Eugenio Dalleggio d’Alessio primarily relied on the black and white photographs of the inventory book kept in the stone artifacts department and he seemingly did not see any of the tombstones in person. Therefore, in his book, the author was able to read only the inscriptions that were already legible on the photographs, which were naturally not the best visual evidence at that time. As a result, many tombstones are in fact waiting to be read and interpreted, since a visit in person showed that a certain number of them have somewhat easily legible conditions through a basic epigraphic survey. The main reason that caused the rather illegible states of almost half of the inscribed tombstones from Galata, therefore affecting the study of Dalleggio d’Alessio through low quality photographic evidence, was the deliberate damages happened during the Ottoman period, when the Church of San Domenico was no more a Christian shrine but a mosque. Until a proper flooring on top of the slabs, it is very likely that the inscriptions in Latin, coats of arms with various figures and large crosses as Christian symbols bothered the Muslim community as the new owners of the building, who prayed directly above those slabs inside the former nave. Thus, the surfaces of the slabs were largely defaced, while traces of different hand tools show that it was not done at once or by the same person. Nevertheless, while some defacing efforts were very patient and precise that caused an entire deep removal of inscriptions as well as other elements of the tombstones, some other were obviously hasty and through inadequate equipment, so that the inscriptions were damaged to a rather superficial extent and remained somehow legible, under proper lighting conditions.

So far, I was able to return more than ten inscriptions in full, which were photographically published by Dalleggio d’Alessio but were epigraphically omitted. It is possible to support the findings through archival records about the former Pera colony now kept in the State Archives of Genoa, which were published by Belgrano as well. It is still a work in progress, which I am feeling very excited about. I am planning to publish my findings in a journal article soon. Yet, such a reconsideration was surely not the first attempt after the fundamental compilation and study of Dalleggio d’Alessio, through his famous “Le Pietre Sepolcrali di Arab Giami”. Later scholars indeed noticed the gaps that it has and tried to add on as much as possible, while their efforts mainly concentrated on formerly unnoticed artifacts rather than insufficiently studied materials, therefore aimed at discoveries instead of rediscoveries in the end.

For instance, Düll argued after a careful study that, in the first complete collection of the Genoese tombstones from the Arab Mosque, namely the former San Domenico, by Dalleggio d’Alessio, one of them, being the No. 52 is actually missing in the book, between a group of undated inscriptions from the 14th century. This was most probably a simple publication error. In this case, the slab of the missing number was proposed as the tombstone of Nicola Deo and his father Domenico Deo dated 22 May 1399, since it is already in the museum inventory as well as the photographic collection of the stone artifacts department that Dalleggio d’Alessio used. Düll provided a complete transcription and commentary of the inscription (Figure 9).

Figure 9: Tombstone of Nicola Deo and his father Domenico Deo, died on 22 May 1399 (Hasan Sercan Saglam, 2023).

Then, in another study, Düll noticed a tombstone lying in the middle of a gallery inside the so-called Storage 27, which was totally omitted by Dalleggio d’Alessio despite its monumental dimensions and central position together with other Genoese lapidary material brought from Galata. The probable reason behind that curious omittance was seemingly the later registry of that single artifact to the museum inventory, therefore its registry was put in a different folder from the bulk collection of the Galata funerary slabs. Once again, if Dalleggio d’Alessio would have visited the storages in person, he would have undoubtedly noticed that piece, though he relied on the photographs in a single folder, so the slab remained unnoticed and unpublished. According to the study of Düll, it is the tombstone of Pasturino Levanto, who died on 4 March 1388 (Figure 10).

Figure 10: Tombstone of Pasturino Levanto, dated 4 March 1388 (Hasan Sercan Saglam, 2023).

As a final example, an insufficiently studied tombstone because of the basic photographic consideration of Dalleggio d’Alessio was thoroughly reconsidered by Düll, Anthony Luttrell and Maurice Keen. The advantage of that latter study was probably the removal of the partially defaced slab in question from the museum storage in a later time and its display in the Galata section, together with some other Genoese slabs. While the available information about the slab remained the same, the scholars probably realized the sharp contrast between the vague literature and the valuable information that the inscription of the slab offers in reality, namely the tombstone of William Neville and John Clanvowe dated October 1391, who were two noble Englishmen as brothers-in-arms and died in Constantinople (Figure 11).

In any case, the Genoese lapidary collection of the Istanbul Archaeology Museums deserves further research and it was seen that the subject apparently has more aspects to be discovered from an interdisciplinary perspective.

Figure 11: Tombstone of John Clanvowe and William Neville, died on 6 October and 10 October 1391, respectively (Hasan Sercan Saglam, 2023).

Selected Bibliography

Luigi Tommaso Belgrano, “Documenti riguardanti la colonia Genovese di Pera”, Atti della Società Ligure di Storia Patria, 13: 99-417, 932-1003, 1877.

Johannes Cramer, Siegrid Düll, “Baubeobachtungen an der Arap Camii in Istanbul”, Istanbuler Mitteilungen, 35: 295-321, 1985.

Eugenio Dalleggio d’Alessio, Le Pietre Sepolcrali di Arab Giami, Atti della Regia Deputazione di Storia Patria per la Liguria, Genoa, 1942.

Siegrid Düll, “Unbekannte Denkmäler der Genuesen aus Galata”, Istanbuler Mitteilungen, 33: 225- 238, 1983.

Siegrid Düll, “Unbekannte Denkmäler der Genuesen aus Galata II”, Istanbuler Mitteilungen, 36: 245-256, 1986.

Siegrid Düll, Anthony Luttrell, Maurice Keen, “Faithful unto Death: the Tomb Slab of Sir William Neville and Sir John Clanvowe, Constantinople 1391”, The Antiquaries Journal, 71: 174-190, 1991.

Victor Marie de Launay, “Notice sur le vieux Galata (Péra des Génois)”, L’Univers, Revue Orientale, 1(1): 25-30, 1875.

Victor Marie de Launay, “Notice sur le vieux Galata (Péra des Génois)”, L’Univers, Revue Orientale, 1(2): 105-115, 1875.

Victor Marie de Launay, “Notice sur le vieux Galata (Péra des Génois)”, L’Univers, Revue Orientale, 1(3): 170-178, 1875.

Victor Marie de Launay, “Notice sur le vieux Galata (Péra des Génois)”, L’Univers, Revue Orientale, 1(4): 225-232, 1875.

Ettore Rossi, “Le Lapidi Genovesi delle Mura di Galata, Iscrizioni Genovesi in Crimea ed in Costantinopoli”, Atti della Società Ligure di Storia Patria, 56: 143-167, 1928.



Cite this blog post
Hasan Sercan Saglam (2023, July 1). Mission to the Istanbul Archaeology Museums: Rediscovery of the Genoese Inventory. ERC GRAPH-EAST. Retrieved February 28, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/5qy

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