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It is rather unusual for a museum to be located immediately next to a graveyard. But that is exactly where the museum of Ahlat in eastern Turkey stands. The gravestones lie scattered at random in the grass and weeds. Oblivious to the world, they appear contented with their state. This is the Ahlat Museum, dazzling with its ‘terrible beauty’...
The sense of terrible beauty is dispelled briefly when one reaches the museum entrance. The museum building is constructed of natural materials in a refined yet modest design, respectful of its surroundings. Its connection with the outside world is tenuous precisely because it is a museum. Yet it is a charming one-story structure that readily draws a person in.
WHERE CIVILIZATION WAS BORN
Open to visitors since 1970, Ahlat Museum is rather new for a museum, especially for these lands where civilization was born.
Most of the artifacts exhibited in the museum were found in archaeological work done in the area in the mid-1960s. Rather late, again for these lands.
The minute you set foot inside the museum, the terrible beauty begin all over again.
The diversity of this charming yet isolated museum is astonishing. Besides more ‘recent’ monuments from the Seljuk and Ottoman periods, there are also those left from the era of Rome and Antiquity, even from the second millennium B.C.
Artifacts unearthed in excavations carried out in the neighborhood of the Çifte Hamam and the Ulu Camii (Great Mosque), which are among the prominent architectural monuments of the nearby area, form the major part of the museum’s collection.
The pottery of the Seljuk period conveys a sense of the refinements of Seljuk civilization, a key encounter between the cultures of Asia and Anatolia. More than simple ‘maquillage’, the decoration on these pieces is an inherent part of the object. It is possible to find clues to the essence of life itself on these artifacts, which date to periods when pottery was a branch of art all its own and a world fraught with symbols. And the gravestones in the old graveyard, which was organized as an open air museum before the museum itself was opened, are among the impressive works produced by the Seljuks in a multitude of different types.
HYBRID PRODUCTS OF EAST AND WEST
A wide variety of pipes, oil lamps and pottery from the Roman and Byzantine periods make up a separate section of the museum. The reshaping of everyday life and artistic workmanship under western influence in these periods adds special importance to the region as well as to the museum. There would undoubtedly be certain limits to the impact of Western art in Eastern and Southeastern Anatolia, and those limits created a climate conducive to the emergence of hybrid works of East and West.
A separate section of the museum is also reserved for the collections of bracelets, belts, dress pins and barrettes bearing the Urartu double-headed dragon. The opportunity this offers for a close-up view of everyday life in ancient periods, and the realization that people who lived thousands of years ago were so much like us, must be one of the most serendipitous moments of any museum tour.
Isn’t it uncanny the way a few ‘simple’ objects of everyday life suffice to make a person feel he is part of a long history and suffuse him with a sense of friendly intimacy with previous generations? A handful of objects of no apparent ‘value’ can in an instant conjure up a feeling that the history books never can.
The forerunner of money
Among the artifacts on display here are also some burial finds from the second millennium B.C. and the Early Iron Age that were extracted from the Yuvadamı Necropolis 15 km away. At the same time, more pottery and utensils dating to the Iron Age and the end of the Middle Bronze Age are also among the pieces in the collection.
Besides the 2,608 archaeological finds displayed here, the museum’s collection of 1,685 coins is also noteworthy. These coins are of special importance from the historical standpoint insofar as we can learn from the images portrayed on them about the form of organization of the state, countless historical events, a building that was destroyed, or a plant that existed then but no longer grows today. Even if we are not numismatic experts, we will undoubtedly contemplate with surprise and admiration how far from the colorful world of the coins are the cold images evoked in our imagination by today’s money.
Meanwhile how wonderful
it is to feel that ‘the past’, which we took for dead and catalogued, placed in storage, and then opened up to visitors in glass cases, still lives on today.
The doors the Ahlat Museum has opened to the public lead us down roads where the past is alive and thriving and arrive at a place where the expression ‘terrible beauty’ is not an oxymoron.