Beyond Pompeii: The Mosaics of Gazientep

Yesterday, I posted some of the delicious mosaics unearthed at Pompeii. For the most part, the works are fairly small. Only a few are more, say, than five or six feet on a side. I also mentioned that, however wonderful these works are, they constitute only the second best mosaic collection I’ve seen. The best is at the purpose-built Gazientep Mosaic Museum in southern Turkey.

I thought Orestes must have shown you some of those mosaics, but I can’t find any record in the archive, so at the risk of repeating myself, I’ll try again.

The very size of the Gazientep mosaics distinguishes the collection from the holdings at Naples. Many of the works are room-sized–and big rooms at that. Many don’t allow a convenient angle from which to shoot them. Others are accessible from a second floor balcony. Blessings on the architect’s head for that.

Here is a selection:



Let’s start with something small, a wall piece perhaps or a place of honor in a much larger work. An interesting note about this character with the piercing eyes is that it has been identified as one of two people: a youthful prostitute, or Alexander the Great. Talk about latitude of interpretation!

And here we have Neptune and a seascape:DSC_7025

This shot from above reveals the size of a room bounded by columns and an altar.

Here are two close-ups:


Poor Neptune looks vaguely bored; his consort silently suggests that it’s time to feed the sea serpent. The monster agrees.



Some rooms would make one woozy. Here is a portrait of Dionysus. The floor suggests a post-inebriation state of mind.


And here is the great and arrogant Achilles:


I like the border as scalloped wave; it looks as if the whole floor could be lifted by the breeze and floated away.



A fruitful couple? Note how lush, fertile, and fruitful the border is, and how the intimacy of the piece is enforced by four separate border designs.


Not everything is so perfectly designed and beautifully wrought. I’d like to think that this mosaic adorned the children’s quarters. I don’t think there is a happier horse this side of You-Tube.


And now we come to the great work, a narrative dense with history and mythology, a story so sexually charged that the children were probably not allowed in this room, a design at once subtle and overt. It’s the story of Pasiphae, daughter of the Sun himself, and wife to Minos, king of Crete. Pasiphae, cursed by Poseidon, loved a white bull. She had Daedalus (father of Icarus who died when both tried to flee captivity on Crete on wax and feather wings. You know that story.) fashion a wooden cow in which she could display herself to the bull in secret. The result was the Minotaur, a monstrous half-man, half-bull. Here, perhaps, is a crucial point at which myth and history meet.

Historically, there was a time when Cretan culture and power surpassed those of upstart Greece, and the Greeks probably paid some sort of annual tribute to the Cretans. When Greeks visited Crete, they found the great subterranean maze where the Minotaur was imprisoned. Back to mythology: for tribute, the Greeks were obliged to send two youngsters a year to join he Minotaur for lunch. In fact, we can surmise that visitors to Knossos were amazed (ha!) that the huge palace was a dizzying complex of 1500 rooms, corridors, staircases, courtyards. There was nothing like it in Greece, so of course Theseus would need a thread to help him find his way through the labyrinth (which Daedalus also designed and built). Anyway, Theseus slays the Minotaur, canceling the tribute by cannibalism,  and sails away with his love, Ariadne, Pasiphae’s daughter (whom he later abandons). Thus, we see the power of Crete wane, and Athens rise to preeminence. History? Myth? Who cares?

The room-sized mosaic tastefully introduces the whole drama: we see, at the left hand corner, Eros eyeing the cow’s-head mask from which Pasiphae will make cow-eyes at her bull. Beside here is an attendant, or nurse, or friend who thinks this may not be a very good idea. In the middle, Daedalus is beginning his labor. And to his right, Icarus, taking a break from crafting the wings that will bear him to death, is already at work on the bull. What a story.




One last note. Is the border significant to the design of the narrative? Is that a depiction of the labyrinth? And outside that motif, are those the waves over which Pasiphae will sail and Daedalus will fly? And are those interlocking links emblems of stories and lives that are forever chained together and held secure in a box?

Of course they are.


2 thoughts on “Beyond Pompeii: The Mosaics of Gazientep

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