1887: Sarcophagi from Sidon for the Müze-i Hümayun (Imperial Museum)

Commented by: Sebastian Willert

Material description

The print was made by the French photographer and artist J. Devillard and published in Une nécropole royale à Sidon. Fouilles de Hamdy Bey in 1892 by Osman Hamdi Bey (1842–1910) and Theodore Reinach (1860–1928) through Ernest Laroux in Paris (Hamdi Bey/Reinach, 1892, 60). It is based on a photograph taken on May 23rd, 1887, during the excavation of the sarcophagus no. 7 in a necropolis close to the town Sidon/Sayda in the vilâyet Beirut, nowadays part of the Lebanon. The original photograph was possibly taken by Osman Hamdi Bey, the director of the Müze-i Hümayun (Imperial Museum) in Constantinople and the person in charge of the excavation in Sidon.

Short summary

This image illustrates the moment of extraction of one of the central finds of the Sidon excavation what were to become the most important objects on display in the Imperial Museum. When, in 1887, the access to a necropolis in Sidon was discovered and reported to Constantinople, it was immediately decided to send the director of the Imperial Museum, Osman Hamdi Bey, to undertake excavations. Osman Hamdi later used the most important finds such as the Great or İskender Sarcophagus and the Sarcophagus of the Mourning Women to justify the extension of the Imperial Museum in Constantinople. Simultaneously to the opening of the new museum building in 1891 where the sarcophagi were displayed, he published illustrations of them in Une nécropole royale à Sidon. The Sidon finds played a significant role for the establishment and international reputation of Ottoman archaeology.


The viewer’s gaze is guided from the lower edge of the print to the centre by wooden tracks and ropes lying in the middle of the rails. The frame of the print is the tunnel. In its centre the sarcophagus is shown, which is drawn into the daylight from the dark burrow. Around the centrepiece one can observe two local workers and their three Ottoman supervisors, identifiable by their Fez. One local worker is standing in the foreground to the right, draped in ropes. The local workers are all looking into the direction of the observer, whereas the Ottoman authorities on the left side are facing the sarcophagus and one of them is pointing at a certain point in front of it, whilst the third is looking into the direction of the viewer. The sarcophagus depicted is identified as the Great or in Turkish İskender Sarcophagus – also known as Alexander Sarcophagus – through the engraved hunt of a panther by Abdalonymus at the short end of the sarcophagus.

The print of the Sidon excavation is part of the elaborate volume Une nécropole royale à Sidon, published by the Editors Osman Hamdi Bey and Theodore Reinach in Paris in 1892, which describes the excavation process in Sidon. It is structured in three parts: first, Osman Hamdi describes the excavation in detail, in particular the extraction of the sarcophagi and their shipment to Constantinople. The second part contains an archaeological commentary of the finds by Theodore Reinach. The author examines both the Egyptian and Greek sarcophagi and highlights important discoveries such as the Great Sarcophagus or the Sarcophagus of the Mourning Women through individual case studies. Anthropological observations are made in the appendix.

The illustration of the moment when the sarcophagus was pulled out of the tunnel is printed within a series of images in the publication. Many of these illustrate the location of the finds within the excavation context and their condition, others depict certain parts of the sarcophagi as well as other finds that support the identification of the objects and their contextualisation as set out by the authors. Finally, technical drawings convey the way in which the excavation was planned and carried out. Three illustrations stand out from this context – they depict the moment of the finds in motion. In addition to the picture discussed here, the publication also contains another one showing the extraction of an Egyptian sarcophagus from a tunnel (Hamdi Bey/Reinach, 1892, 24). Yet another print shows the moment the finds were shipped and transported to the naval vessel (Hamdi Bey/Reinach, 1892, 115). The pictures illustrate the efforts necessary to extract the finds: with the help of about 25 men a tunnel of approx. 1.60 metres height into the necropolis was prepared to simplify the access to the sarcophagi and organise their removal. The workers then used a sleigh, wooden tracks and the technique of block and tackle to pull out the sarcophagi which has a weight of approx. 5 t. The extraction of one of the larger sarcophagi required the efforts of 50 to 60 men (Çelik, 2016, 146). The coffins were safely placed on the naval vessel Asır and shipped via Gümüşlük/Mylassa to Constantinople. It was the accidental discovery of a quarry owner who came across a shaft connected with chambers in early spring 1887 which led to the excavation in Sidon. The seven burial chambers contained unusually large and beautiful sarcophagi from the fourth century B.C. When the discovery was reported to Constantinople, the director of the Imperial Museum, Osman Hamdi Bey, together with his colleague Yervant Voskan, was sent to excavate and secure the finds (Shaw, 2011, 434). So, in a very short time – from his arrival in Sidon in April 1887 until his departure in June in the same year, Osman Hamdi was able to ship all of the finds, in total 16 sarcophagi plus different antiquities, to Constantinople (Hamdi Bey/Reinach, 1892, 110–118).

In his position as director of the Imperial Museum, Osman Hamdi used key finds like the İskender Sarcophagus and the Sarcophagus of the Mourning Women – both translocated from Sidon in 1887 – to justify the extension of the Imperial Museum. The construction was completed in 1891. In the meantime, from 1887 to 1891, Osman Hamdi prevented other archaeologists – especially from abroad – from examining the Sidon finds. He leaked bits and pieces of information to raise curiosity from time to time (Makdisi 2011, 272/Çelik, 2016, 51). Even the external appearance of the new museum building is a reminiscence of the significance of the Sidon finds, especially as the architecture is an adaptation of the sarcophagus of the Mourning Women (Shaw 2003, 157/Shaw 2007, 258). “Osman Hamdi’s goal to place the Imperial Museum on the map of international scholarship succeeded at a remarkable pace, following the inauguration of the new buildings and despite a wave of bitter reactions against the Ottoman claims to antiquities.” (Çelik 2016, 7)

Like numerous excavations in the 19th century, the Sidon excavation was aimed at extracting the sarcophagi to include it in the museum’s collection in Constantinople. The excavation methods aimed at extracting the sarcophagi so that they could be transferred to the Ottoman capital as quickly as possible. Therefore, destructive and invasive methods were used to dig a tunnel into the necropolis to be able to extract the sarcophagi. The Sidon excavation is part of resistant measures of Ottoman archaeologists like Osman Hamdi Bey against European and American cultural imperialistic exploitation of the cultural assets from the Ottoman Empire. The establishment of archaeology as a scientific discipline in the 19th century led to many expeditions and numerous and comprehensive excavations in the Ottoman Empire, which were intended to increase collections in European museums (Winter 2014, 34). In addition to illegal and destructive excavations, these museums now also coveted the ancient sites in Asia Minor and the Middle East. The Ottoman Empire tried to contain or prevent its exploitation of antiquities through its antiquity legislation and the professionalisation of its own museum. The ratification of the Antiquities Law in 1874 and its amendment in 1884 were intended to restrict and even prohibit the export of antique objects. Furthermore, in 1881 Osman Hamdi Bey was promoted director of the Müze-i Hümayun (Shaw 2007, 257). Osman Hamdi was a key figure in developing Ottoman awareness of the cultural and political significance of antiquities within the Ottoman Empire. In addition to the more restrictive legislation prohibiting the export of antique objects, Osman Hamdi and his brother Halil Edhem Eldem – both trained in Europe and with an extensive network including European and American archaeologists – also promoted the establishment and professionalization of the Ottoman Imperial Museum and an Ottoman archaeology (Makdisi 2011, 272).

Within the international competition for excavation sites and the search for spectacular large finds (Eldem 2011, 281/Shaw 2003, 35) where antiquities were given a privileged role. They often were further stylized into national symbols by museums. Thus, the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum were used for British identity, while the Venus de Milo in the Louvre represented France and the sculptures of the Temple of Aphaea in the Glyptothek in Munich was exploited for the construction of Bavarian identity. Having the possibility to transfer the important finds from Sidon to the Museum in Constantinople, the Ottoman Empire had the chance to match the European Great Powers. Osman Hamdi Bey tried to exhibit the Hellenistic and Egyptian sarcophagi from Sidon in the Imperial Museum in Constantinople displaying them as emblems of the illustrious Ottoman culture (Bahrani/Çelik /Eldem 2011, 32/Eldem 2011, 281).

Together with the opening of the new museums building simultaneously displaying the Sidon sarcophagi, Osman Hamdi published illustrations of the finds in Une nécropole royale à Sidon. He also highlighted their absence from European Museums. The elaborate and expensive 407-page publication with its numerous illustrations – in the context of the opening of the new Imperial Museum – contributed to the fact that Ottoman archaeology was suddenly able to catch up with European and American archaeology. Concerning Osman Hamdi Bey the print discussed here could be an image depicting the moment of birth of Ottoman archaeology. The publication of the sensational finds and their prominent exhibition in the museum illustrates and demonstrates the technical skills and abilities of Ottoman archaeologists. The Sidon finds, and their publication brought attention to the Ottoman contribution to science and by publishing the excavation results “he [Osman Hamdi] must have been confident, [he] would put the Imperial Museum on the world map.” (Çelik 2016, 51). In consequence Osman Hamdi used the sarcophagi as centrepieces for the museum and to demonstrate the equality of Ottomans and Europeans in archaeological matters.


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Cite this article as:
Sarcophagi from Sidon for the Müze-i Hümayun (Imperial Museum), commented by 
Sebastian Willert, in: Translocations. Ikonographie: A collection of commented image sources on cultural heritage relocations since antiquity, http://transliconog.hypotheses.org/kommentierte-bilder-2/sarcophagi-from-sidon-for-the-mueze-i-huemayun-imperial-museum, published 16/05/2018.