"Short stories and travel reports from my life adventures around the globe".

Astonishing Art at The Great Palace Mosaic Museum.

Astonishing Art at The Great Palace Mosaic Museum.

Astonishing Art at The Great Palace Mosaic Museum.

October 2020.

Earlier in this series I suggested that the city of Istanbul can be viewed as a tale of two palaces. If you haven’t already checked out my pieces on Topkapi Palace and Dolmabahçe Palace, please do, these sights are absolute gems!

While I stand by what I said, I also recognise that in actual fact the city was once home to three monster palaces. The thing is, few visitors to the city know about The Great Palace of Constantinople. That’s because today only a few remnants remain from the complex that was the beating heart of the Byzantine Empire.

An artist's impression of The Great Palace of Constantinople

The Great Palace of Constantinople, an artist’s impression.

Built in 330 AD by Constantine the Great, The Great Palace stood between today’s Sultanahmet Square and Hagia Sophia. Unfortunately, in the early years of the Ottoman era, the palace was demolished, the majority of its treasures lost to the ravages of time. These days, just a few precious artefacts exist, such as this sculpted pier on display at the Istanbul Archaeological Museums.

Exploring Istanbul.

A surviving pier from The Great Palace of Constantinople.

A precious relic from The Great Palace of Constantinople.

However, Istanbul is also home to a truly spectacular collection of art that once lived in The Great Palace. Archaeologists found them in the early 1950s during excavations. Hitting the jackpot, the English archaeologist David Talbot Rice and his team discovered a stunning array of 1500 year old wall and floor mosaics.

English archaeologist David Talbot Rice.

David Talbot Rice: Looking jolly pleased with himself.

In 1983 a group of historians and archeologists from the Austrian Academy of Sciences launched a huge project to study, restore and preserve the mosaic fragments. Thus, in 1987, The Great Palace Mosaic Museum opened in Istanbul. A place where visitors like Sladja and I could roll up, pay a small fee, and check out these magnificent pieces of ancient Byzantine art.

Great Palace Mosaic Museum Istanbul.

Astonishing Art at The Great Palace Mosaic Museum.

It wasn’t until 1997 that the restoration project finally came to a close. Bearing in mind the magnitude of the task and the spectacular nature of the relics themselves, I couldn’t quite believe that entry to the museum was a paltry 35 Turkish Liras per person (around $1.40).

Astonishing Art at The Great Palace Mosaic Museum.

Visit the Great Palace Mosaic Museum in Istanbul.

Exceptional art and history, no people. My kinda joint.

We arrived on a hot October afternoon, so immediately relished the cool air in the museum, which had an aircraft hangar feel to it. Moreover, we found ourselves exchanging smiles as we realised it was just us inside. Or was that someone disappearing around a distant corner? Either way, this was definitely as good as it gets.

The stunning mosaics of Constantinople

Astonishing Art at The Great Palace Mosaic Museum.

The setup for the museum was simple. First, we read a series of wall panels detailing where the mosaics were found. Talbot and friends unearthed them on the floor of a huge peristyle courtyard in what would have been the palace’s south-western wing.

The history of the Great Palace Mosaic Museum

Astonishing Art at The Great Palace Mosaic Museum.

Historians believe the mosaics featured roughly 80 million multi-coloured cubes made of lime, terracotta and glass. Originally, they reckon this covered a surface area of 1872 square metres. Of that, they succeeded in restoring and preserving around 250 square meters.

Restoration of Great Palace Mosaics Istanbul 1985.

Astonishing Art at The Great Palace Mosaic Museum.

As for who made the mosaics, historians can’t be certain. Nevertheless, there are some theories that make sense. With elements of traditional Greek and Roman mosaic art evident throughout the works, one idea is that Constantine hired the most talented craftsmen in the world for what would have been the most ambitious mosaic project of the times. In contrast, other experts insist that domestic artists made the mosaics taking inspiration from the Greeks and the Romans.

1500 year-old Art.

Restoration of the Great Palace Mosaics in Istanbul.

Laying the floor at The Great Palace Mosaic Museum.

Some of the restored mosaics sit elegantly on the museum floor in order to show how they might have looked in the courtyard of The Great Palace back in the day.

Ancient Byzantine floor mosaics in Istanbul

Astonishing Art at The Great Palace Mosaic Museum.

Other more fractured images that couldn’t be reconnected with their sister pieces stand individually wall-mounted. Regardless of their position, all represent a single reference point for how the palace itself may have looked. And of course they are priceless windows into 4th century art and culture.

The Great Palace Mosaics of Byzantine Constantinople

Astonishing Art at The Great Palace Mosaic Museum.

Hunting, for example, is a theme that dominates much of the artwork on display. Some of it is horrifyingly/pleasingly (delete as appropriate) grisly, such as this large bear sinking its teeth into a hapless lamb. Yes, that’s blood gushing out of the poor thing.

Bear and lamb Great Palace Mosaic Museum

Astonishing Art at The Great Palace Mosaic Museum.

In another, a leopard launches a vicious attack on a stag. The scene seems to be unfolding on the site of a water mill.

Astonishing Art at The Great Palace Mosaic Museum.

Leopard attacking a stag mosaic Istanbul

A leopard takes no prisoners.

In this one, meanwhile, an elephant seems to be getting the upper hand on a lion.

Ancient elephant and lion mosaic Istanbul

Astonishing Art at The Great Palace Mosaic Museum.

This image of a huntsman on horseback certainly stopped me in my tracks, a gaping hole where his face should be. According to the notes under this one, he is “hunting for gazelles dressed in oriental garb”. Hmm, not exactly inconspicuous.

Faceless huntsman Great Palace Mosaic Museum

“Give me back my face!”

This hunter, on the other hand, his face fully intact, is about to clash with a fierce looking leopard. But again, there is a key part of the image missing. If we could just see what the hunter is carrying, we might have a better idea who the likely victor will be.

Hunter and leopard Great Palace Mosaic Museum

Who’s your money on?

Elsewhere, how about this incredible piece showing a snake and eagle in combat? Symbolising the eternal battle of light over darkness, the snake and the eagle are widespread in antiquity. In fact, this same image featured on the funeral pyre that Alexander the Great had erected for his deified friend Hephaistion in 324 BC. Furthermore, the imagery was a mainstay of Roman Army standards.

Light and Darkness.

The Snake and the Eagle Great Palace Mosaic Museum

Astonishing Art at The Great Palace Mosaic Museum.

Away from scenes of conflict, there are some curious and often amusing snippets of everyday life. In this article’s cover photo, two young boys ride a camel. The lad at the front appears to be from a wealthy family, evidenced by the wreath in his hair and the tame bird in his hand. The boy behind him, however seems to be a commoner, which would make him an unusual choice of playmate. One theory is that he could have been the son of a family servant.

Astonishing Art at The Great Palace Mosaic Museum.

Astonishing Art at The Great Palace Mosaic Museum.

Numerous mosaics depict farm life. Planting vegetables, picking fruit, ploughing the land. In the below image, a husband and wife show their annoyance as they herd a pair of mischievous geese.

Farmers herding geese Great Palace Mosaic Museum

“Geese a hand, darling!”

Conversely, there is a suggestion of genuine affection between this man (?) and his donkey as he presents a basket of (what I assume is) fruit with a warm smile.

Woman feeding donkey Great Palace Mosaic Museum

Astonishing Art at The Great Palace Mosaic Museum.

Last but not least, I can’t help but smile at this quirky piece showing a monkey trying to catch a bird. Or at least that’s what the accompanying info says. The monkey is using a stick to try and knock birds out of the tree.

He wears a wooden cage on his back, upon which sits a presumably tame falcon who watches proceedings with interest. This mosaic certainly wins the prize for most surreal and throws up plenty of questions. Chiefly, why is monkey catching birds? And what happened to its tail?

Astonishing Art at The Great Palace Mosaic Museum.

Monkey trying to catch birds Great Palace Mosaic Museum

Slowly, slowly, catchy birdy.

Exiting back out into the sunshine, Sladja and I chatted excitedly about what a special exhibition we’d just seen. What’s more, we had paid mere pennies for the privilege and enjoyed the museum largely to ourselves.

While putting this article together I noticed that, at the time of writing, the museum is temporarily closed. An official statement reveals that the works are undergoing further restoration in addition to an “enhancement project”. It will be interesting to see how it all looks after reopening.

Stunning ancient art at Great Palace Mosaic Museum

Astonishing Art at The Great Palace Mosaic Museum.

Like this? Take a look at my series of articles on Istanbul.

I’ve been living, working and traveling all over the world since 2001. So why not check out my huge library of travel reports from over 30 countries.

Leighton Travels logo travel reports and short stories.


  • Lyssy In The City

    I’m always so impressed with mosaics. They take such skill and patience. So glad you could check out this great museum without all the crowds!

    September 13, 2023 - 3:50 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      I agree. If Sladja and I ever make our own home I’d like to think there would be a spot somewhere for a bit of mosaic work.

      September 13, 2023 - 3:55 pm Reply
  • Mallee Stanley

    These mosaics certainly give a clear sense of what life was like back then and those blood thirsty scenes were likely just part of every day life at that time. They didn’t have neatly packed pieces of meat on a supermarket shelf.

    September 13, 2023 - 4:14 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Absolutely Mallee, these mosaics offer such a unique window into ancient times. Thanks for reading!

      September 13, 2023 - 5:49 pm Reply
  • christinenovalarue


    September 13, 2023 - 5:10 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks Christine!

      September 13, 2023 - 5:46 pm Reply
  • kagould17

    So awesome that some of these mosaic treasures were saved. What a fascinating art and likely one that some artists spent their entire life doing the painstaking layout and placement of tiles in such a large floor. We were lucky enough to see portions of a rescued mosaic floor in the Gallo-Roman Museum in Lyon (Lugdunum). Thanks for sharing and have a great Wednesday Leighton. Allan.

    September 13, 2023 - 5:17 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks for reading about these ancient treasures Allan. It was a privilege to see them in person and a pleasure to now share them with everyone.

      September 13, 2023 - 5:45 pm Reply
  • Diana

    Wow! It’s amazing that any amount of this has survived all these years, let alone this much. I can only imagine how tedious it was to create in the first place and also to restore.

    September 13, 2023 - 5:19 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Hey Diana, I agree that it is something of a miracle that these mosaics even exist in 2023. Thanks for reading about this museum, I wanted to give it a plug as it doesn’t have many online write ups.

      September 13, 2023 - 5:43 pm Reply
  • Memo

    I have wondered what had happened to the palace of Constantine. Thanks for an answer. Truly impressive and a great place to spend a day (again without crowds.) The size data is overwhelming. Like a giant jigsaw puzzle with a requisite missing pieces. I wonder how many craftsmen work on the mosaics and if a single master oversaw the work. Hard to imagine. Thanks again for a wonderful post.

    September 13, 2023 - 6:25 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Cheers Memo, we were delighted that we took a chance on this place 🙂

      September 13, 2023 - 7:59 pm Reply
  • wetanddustyroads

    I love the mosaics (and it’s even better without a crowd). It’s hard to get over the numbers here: “80 million multi-coloured cubes” and “1500 year-old art” … wow! I think my money is on the leopard, but why is there such a grin on the hunter’s face (as if he knows something we don’t). As for the monkey … it’s quite funny/weird (or maybe it was the then version of a cartoon 😄).

    September 13, 2023 - 7:36 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Ha, a Byzantine cartoon. If only we could see the other pages and find out what happened at the end of the story.

      September 13, 2023 - 8:01 pm Reply
  • Rebecca

    Truly fascinating; I love mosaics and love how intricate they are. The time and dedication taken to this attention to detail is extraordinary. Such a wonderful visit!

    September 13, 2023 - 9:35 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks Rebecca, I’m glad these old mosaics appeal. It’s yet another impressive and under-the-radar spot in the Turkish capital.

      September 14, 2023 - 8:23 am Reply
  • grandmisadventures

    How incredible to see these nuggets of what once was of the great palace. I’m always amazed at the intricate detail and color of such small tiles used to create such beautiful pieces. although it does make you wonder why a monkey is trying to catch a bird??? And for how old they are, it is impressive that so many survived. Great post Leighton 🙂

    September 13, 2023 - 11:49 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks Meg, this was s such a cool museum to discover. I’m sure that when they reopen they will have some kind of video technology added to the affair. But really, the mosaics themselves are more than enough.

      September 14, 2023 - 8:21 am Reply
  • NortheastAllie

    Beautiful mosaics, and an interesting look into history from them as well!

    September 14, 2023 - 1:18 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks for reading Allie!

      September 14, 2023 - 8:19 am Reply
  • bronlima

    About the monkey! Perhaps the bird on the cage on his back is….. the bird he is looking for in the tree, interested in observing the monkey’s futile efforts!

    September 14, 2023 - 2:35 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Ha, could be Geoff. Monkey, being not the sharpest tool in the box, might not even know that he’s behind him.

      September 14, 2023 - 8:19 am Reply
  • Anna

    Mosaics are amazing!!! I loved the ones I saw in Jordan.

    September 14, 2023 - 3:20 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Ah Jordan, that’s a country that’s quite high up on the list.

      September 14, 2023 - 8:18 am Reply
      • Anna

        Its amazing Leighton, I think you would love it!

        September 14, 2023 - 3:44 pm
  • Anonymous

    what an incredible collection leighton. i do like the attacking leopard and must concede that my money is on the beast. unless that is a machine gun behind the blur. commendable that you visit and write about this lesser known site but then i expect nothing less form you. stan.

    September 14, 2023 - 8:40 am Reply
    • Leighton

      I agree that the leopard looks like it means business! Thanks for the mini catchup Stan, hope all is well in autumnal (?) DC.

      September 14, 2023 - 8:46 am Reply
  • Monkey's Tale

    These are stunning and so wonderful that they were found. Unfortunately the museum is closed. I’m not sure why or for how long. I’m also sure the price will have gone up a lot but the time it opens 😊

    September 14, 2023 - 9:26 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Yeah, I covered the closure and reason in the article. As for the reopening date, that does appear to be unknown. It looks like it only closed in July, so I guess the place could be out of action for a lengthy period.

      September 14, 2023 - 9:48 am Reply
  • Travels Through My Lens

    It’s amazing that the mosaics still exist, and most look pretty well preserved. I was glad to see some scenes of everyday life, since I was beginning to wonder if they were all about struggle. What a treat for you and Sladja to have experienced this without crowds. Thanks Leighton, for sharing this amazing slice of history with us.

    September 14, 2023 - 10:40 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks Tricia, I’m glad you also enjoyed seeing these mosaics. Not sure exactly what their “enhancement project” entails, but hope that these mosaics can be back on public display soon.

      September 14, 2023 - 12:49 pm Reply
  • David Linebarger

    What great mosaics. What a jewel of a museum. Great pics. Great post! Thanks.

    September 14, 2023 - 3:47 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Cheers David, thanks for reading and contributing to the thread. Much appreciated.

      September 14, 2023 - 4:28 pm Reply

    Fabulous collection. Seen some fantastic examples of mosaics on our travels, what a fabulous collection this one is…

    September 14, 2023 - 8:27 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Cheers, thanks for stopping by!

      September 14, 2023 - 11:47 pm Reply
  • travelling_han

    I always find mosaics fascinating, the amount of time it must have taken to make them back in the day is crazy. This museum is beautiful 🙂

    September 14, 2023 - 10:57 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks for reading Han, this museum was such a pleasant and unexpected surprise.

      September 14, 2023 - 11:48 pm Reply
  • WanderingCanadians

    It’s hard to believe this museum isn’t more popular than it is as the collection of mosaics is quite impressive. I’m sure having the place to yourselves made the experience even more enjoyable. Glad to hear that they are still restoring some pieces to add to the display.

    September 15, 2023 - 3:45 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks for checking out these mosaics, it’s a fascinating and underrated museum.

      September 15, 2023 - 9:18 am Reply
  • Little Miss Traveller

    I’m always impressed with mosaics and their intricacy depicting days gone by Leighton.

    September 15, 2023 - 10:20 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Me too Marion, thanks for your contribution to the thread.

      September 15, 2023 - 10:43 am Reply
  • Little Old World

    I had no idea that Istanbul had a long lost third monster palace. What a fascinating and remarkable museum (and I’m amazed how little it cost you to enter)! It’s great that the mosaics’ remains have been saved, restored and shared in this way.

    September 16, 2023 - 11:47 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      I guess two out of three monster palaces surviving is a decent enough return. Still, it sounds like something really special has been lost, which makes these mosaics all the more precious. Thanks for reading!

      September 18, 2023 - 7:04 pm Reply
  • Toonsarah

    Wow, these are amazing! I love all the details – in a way it reminded me of the carvings at Angkor. Obviously the art form is different but the attention to detail and the fascinating insights into life so long ago are similar.

    September 17, 2023 - 3:35 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Hey Sarah, I’m glad these snippets of ancient art appeal to you. I get the similarity in feel to Angkor art, thanks for checking in!

      September 17, 2023 - 3:38 pm Reply
  • rkrontheroad

    This museum was a wonderful find. The stories it tells about life in those days, and the wildlife. Pleased to know that, in the 50s, there was the desire to restore and save on site rather than looting and sending back to museums in England or western Europe.

    September 18, 2023 - 6:35 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Yeah, it’s great that these mosaics didn’t end up on an episode of ‘Stuff the British Stole’. Thanks for reading Ruth.

      September 18, 2023 - 6:59 pm Reply

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: