Museum Treasure: Sarcophagus of the mourning women

The visit to Istanbul’s Archaeological Museums was the highlight of my trip to there in October 2019. The Istanbul Archaeological Museums is made up of three units — the Istanbul Archaeological Musuem, the Ancient Orient Museum and Tiled Kiosk Museum — and together exhibit over a million artifacts. I could have easily spent a couple of days at the Istanbul Archaeological Museums, but time was a constraint and I could explore for just a couple of hours. I was in a daze for most of the visit as the exhibits were about civilisations and cultures I had only heard of and had read about; this was the first time I was getting to see their material remains.

One of the most impressive set of exhibits that I saw were some sarcophagi from the Royal Necropolis at Sidon (present day Lebanon, then part of the Ottoman Empire). These were excavated in the late 19th century and then transported to Istanbul. Though each sarcopagus was different and interesting in its own way, one of them stood out me for the emotions it evoked. Even seven months after my visit to the Istanbul Archaeological Museums, the one exhibit that has immediate recall is the Sarcophagus of the Mourning Women and the subject of this post.

Sarcophagus of Mourning Women, Istanbul Atchaeolohical Museums, Imperial Loot of Ottoman Empire, Turkey

According to the information provided at the Museum, the Sarcophagus of the Mourning Women dates back to c. 350 BCE and is named after the reliefs of women in mourning all around its exterior. That is perhaps the only thing scholars have agreed upon for there has been considerable debate on who the mourning women are, its age, and even where it was made !

The are 18 mourning women in all and they portray various expressions and postures of mourning/grief. The women are bounded on either side by (mostly) ionic columns. It is not clear who these women are but some scholars have suggested that they are either the wives of the deceased person or his female relatives. Some other scholars have suggested that these women portray the mourning culture common to Mesopotamia and surrounding areas, including Sidon.

While scholars agree that the marble of the sarcophagus is from Greek, they don’t agree where it has been made. Since the sarcophagus reflects the classical Greek style, some scholars believe that it was made in a workshop at Athens or Rhodes; others believe that the marble and the craftsmen from Greece travelled to Sidon to make it there.

Sarcophagus of Mourning Women, Istanbul Atchaeolohical Museums, Imperial Loot of Ottoman Empire, Turkey
The base of the sarcophagus depicts a hunting scene, while the top depicts a funeral procession.
Sarcophagus of Mourning Women, Istanbul Archaeolohical Museums, Imperial Loot of Ottoman Empire, Turkey
Considering the size and detailing of the sarcophagus and where it was found, scholars have suggested that this sarcophagus belonged to King Straton I of Sidon.

This creamy white of the marble sarcophagus and other marble exhibits stand out rather dramatically due to the focussed lighting at the gallery in the Museum. I will never forget my first glimpse of the Sarcophagus of Mourning Women — this was the third in a line of equally impressive sarcophagi. But it had something that the others didn’t — the portrayal of an emotion so raw that it left me shocked and rooted to the spot. I was completely unprepared for the grief, inconsolable grief on the faces of some of the mourning women on the sarcophagus, and sorrow on others. It was impossible not to feel the same emotions myself and wonder about the women and the person they were grieving for. And most of all, who was (or were) the artist(s) who made this?

As I shook off the initial feelings of shock and walked around the sarcophagus, I could feel my eyes welling up in grief and in remembrance of loved ones I have lost. I have rarely displayed an emotion like grief in public, but that day I came close to it. Such was the power of the Sarcophagus of Mourning Women.

For further reading:

  1. Another thing: Emotion – Sarcophagus of the Mourning Women
  2. The Procession on the Sarcophagus of Mourning Women by Martha Weller, California Studies in Classical Antiquity, Vol. 3 (1970), pp. 219-227

The Museum Treasure Series is all about artifacts found in museums with an interesting history and story attached to them. You can read more from this series here.

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2 thoughts on “Museum Treasure: Sarcophagus of the mourning women

  1. So glad you saw that museum! I have not visited recently but yes it was such a great experience.
    Now i need to go back to my old photos to see if I saw that sarcophagus.
    I do hope to get back to Istanbul some day.
    thanks for posting these


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