Scenes of extreme violence are staged amid fruiting trees and botanical motifs. Fantasy beasts, battles, blood and gore float in white fields comprised of millions of tiny tiles. The whole monumental grim garden is trimmed by a thick, elaborate acanthus boarder. A visit to the Great Palace Mosaics Museum made us wonder: who were the people who walked over this graphic carpet?
The answer to that question is a matter for some debate. The mosaic floor of the peristyle courtyard (defined as a columned walkway that surrounds a courtyard) was likely built under Emperor Justinian during the same time period as the construction of the Hagia Sophia and the Basilica Cistern. It was part of the Palace complex, originally built by Constantine in the fourth century. Only a fraction of the floor survived, less than a tenth. The original floor is estimated to have contained 80 million pieces of glass and stone tesserae. The site was first discovered in the 1930's under the Arasta Baazar, but the full excavation didn't take place until the 1950's. The current museum, built on the excavation site, seems squeezed by the still active Arasta Bazaar, probably due to the municipal compromises needed to keep the peace with the merchants. Why else would the sidewalk of the Bazaar take precedence over the museum design, forming a terribly low and dark roof that bisects the long, narrow museum hall beneath it?
We appreciate seeing mosaic floors as they were meant to be viewed, mounted on the ground rather than the wall. But we couldn't help wishing it were a more refined display, with better lighting and less gravel. The conservation-approved special medium surrounding everything looks like driveway gravel, and is a real visual distraction. When the elevated path we were following through the museum left the high-ceilinged, light-filled hall and forced us to duck into a dark passage that crosses beneath the bazaar, our disappointment in the design of this place was confirmed.
The mosaics themselves are magical. We found ourselves really struck by the power of even the most incomplete fragments. Mentally filling-in the lost sections of this visual narrative engaged us in this mythical world in a way that would have been unlikely if we had encountered the whole and perfect example. What was missing, or existed as a mere hint, like the fragment of a child's hand, or the tension of a flying hoof, lulled us into a half-dream state of imagination. If the beginning of our visit was a bit overshadowed with the mechanics of display, it is a testimony to the strength of the mosaics to say that we emerged from the museum in quiet wonder.