Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Esthetics on Alexander's sarcophagus


Last September I was in Istanbul with my husband for a whole week. I was discovering the city for the first time. The purpose of our visit was work and tourism, more tourism for me and more work for him. So I ended up one morning visiting the archeological museum on my own. My husband usually does the everyday plan when we travel and without him that day I decided that I was going to visit the archeological museum without having read previously about it and on a total discovery premice. I really didn't know what to expect.

I started my visit in a separate building dedicated to ancient mesopotamian arts and artefacts marveling at the Hittite Basalt sculptures. I have seen previously a much richer collection of these sculptures in the Aleppo archeological museum in 2005. In the same building were displayed also some pieces from the Babylon Ishtar victory walk, which can be found nearly in its entirety at the magnificent Berlin's Pergamon museum we had visited, my family and I, just two months before coming to Istanbul.

I then wandered through Greek and Roman ancient sculptures in the main building of the museum, after which I crossed the floor to another part showing ancient sarcophagi from the royal necropolis of Sidon, Lebanon. Sidon was on Alexander's the Great conquest path in the orient and later became part of the Ottoman empire during over half a millenium up until the first world war. When crossing, I noticed a big banner showing colored sculptures with inscriptions in Turkish. One character in the sculpture appeared to me as Alexander the great. It was with great anticipation that I started the visit of this part of the museum. When I arrived to the center I saw a sarcophagus inside a glass box. I had toured the object only once when I felt a great weakness inside. I was for the first time, I thought, experiencing the Stendhal syndrome. I was dizzy and heavy with emotions. This was the most beautiful object of ancient Art I had ever seen and it comes from Sidon, Lebanon, a city that was still mourning the nearby Israeli bombings which had stopped only two weeks before. A city of history and beauty. And there was Alexander, portrayed in one of the battle scenes on his horse Bucephalus with his yellow colored curly hair, his Lion head war helmet, his youth and his ardour. And there I was paralysed and unsettled by the tragic beauty emanating from the sarcophagus. I instantly left the building, went outside in the garden café, ordered a turkish tea, and tried to breath and recompose myself while savouring with calm my anticipations before returning to Alexander's sarcophagus.

The sculptures on the four sides of the sarcophagus are rather small and represent scenes of battle as well as hunting scenes. Most of the Greek characters are represented nearly naked while the 'Persians', or more exactly the Scyths, are fully clothed. We don't know if Alexander had actually ordered the sarcophagus for himself but we know that it hosted Sidon's king Abdalonymos, ''the supposed owner of the casket whom Alexander placed on the Sidonian throne after his victory over the Persians at Issos in 333''*. The sculptures are in the pure hellenistic style and slightly colored. The sarcophagus was made in Sidon, most probably at the order of its king Abdalonymos, an Alexander's ally and admirer, who is featured in the hunting scenes wearing the same clothes as the 'Persians'. Interpretations of the relief sculptures on the sarcophagus vary but most of them attribute the presence of Persians, along with the Greek warriors, in the hunting scenes, not only to the fact that some of Alexander's allies in this part of the empire were 'Persians', but also to a specific symbolism often found on sarcophagi sculpture reliefs. This symbolism relates to life. In my opinion ancient sculptures unite warrior enemies in life where they are made equal because war and death do not make them equal. Some are more courageous than others and some will be victorious while others will die. The equality between warriors, and men usually battle only those other men who have the same valour, is to be found in Nature. Nature eclipses human enmity, war and death, to make room for another inequality; Man versus Nature and the predator versus the predated. The end result of such a combination on Alexander's sarcophagus is a scene burgeoning with Life. There was so much life in the sculptures and the scenes and sometimes more than I could witness in the people standing around me. There was raw life, movements, and emotions.

I left the museum after marveling for an indefinite time at Alexander's sarcophagus. I came back a second time with my husband and we visited the part of the museum dedicated to the near orient with archeological artefacts from Syria, Lebanon and Palestine. Yes, It says 'Palestine' for the origin of the artefacts and I felt a warmth inside. I could relate to this place. The Ottoman empire was the most powerful and ruthless of empires but we existed under this empire. And if we have to judge an empire by this only standard, the only possibility left by the empire for the mere existence of the people under his rule, I would not say that the Ottoman empire was the worst of them all. And everywhere in Istanbul there were banners calling for fundraisings for Lebanon's and Gaza's victims of the latest Israeli agressions.

I had only started exploring Istanbul and its beauties with this visit but I felt overwhelmed at the sight of Alexander's sarcophagus. I could leave Istanbul tomorrow, I thought, and be happy. I don't need to visit the rest. I was wrong. The rest was going to be made of the same splendor but only the sculptures on Alexander's Sarcophagus were to leave me with the most powerful of esthetic emotions.
*Brunilde Sismondo Ridgway, 1969. American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 73, No. 4. p. 482.

Source: Méharées


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