Discovering Roman mosaics: where history meets luxury in Antakya

Kane Khanh | Archeaology
August 22, 2023

When hotel construction work unearthed extraordinary mosaics, the owners decided to create a new archaeological park. It showcases what is believed to be the largest known surviving Roman mosaic, as well as some stunning mythological scenes. Anthony Beeson puts us in the picture.

Antakya, anciently Antiochia on the Orontes, is a Turkish city renowned for its superb collection of Roman mosaics and a stunning museum. It can now add a truly remarkable geometric mosaic, lauded as being the largest surviving example in the world, to its public attractions. Antiochia was founded in 300 BC by one of Alexander the Great’s generals, Seleucus I Nicator, and became the capital of the so-called Seleucid Empire. It was then taken over by Rome, at its own request, in 64 BC and became the seat of the governor. ‘Golden Antiochia’ was a favourite with the emperors, who beautified it in an attempt to make it an eastern Rome.

PHOTO: courtesy of the Museum Hotel Antakya
Excavations at a new hotel development in Antakya have revealed some stunning mosaics, including the vast great mosaic. Here, conservators are working on an area of the pavement where earthquake damage has left it looking distinctly rippled. PHOTO: courtesy of the Museum Hotel Antakya
A portion of the great mosaic. This 4th-century pavement covered an area of 1,050m2. In this photograph, its elegant geometric patterns are seen from a walkway during conservation in May 2019. PHOTO: Lale Köklü.

Now a new attraction has opened to the public, displayed beneath a futuristic hotel. It takes the form of a unique archaeological park, the Necmi Asfurog˘lu Archaeology Museum, which is home to the impressively sized great mosaic. This 1,050m² 4th-century pavement was discovered in 2009, when the Asfurog˘lu family began constructing what was supposed to be a new luxury hotel on a site 2km from the centre of the modern city. However, it soon became apparent that the proposed location was full of incredible archaeology. Instead of abandoning the project, the family decided to preserve the archaeological treasures by integrating them into their new hotel. The Asfurog˘lu family worked alongside the Antakya Municipality, the Hatay Archaeology Museum, and the Adana Conservation Council for Cultural and Natural Assets to conduct the largest archaeological excavation in Turkey since the 1930s, and to plan a hotel that would cause the least disturbance to the archaeology. A team of 200, including 35 archaeologists and five restorers, worked for 18 months to complete the excavation and restoration. The finds were superb and included the great geometric pavement, beautiful mosaics such as the 2nd-century AD Bathing of Pegasus, panels devoted to the Muses, and a 5th-century mosaic of Megalopsychia, the physical embodiment of magnanimity, surrounded by birds.

above This wonderful 2nd-century AD mosaic shows Pegasus being groomed.
This wonderful 2nd-century AD mosaic shows Pegasus being groomed. PHOTOS: courtesy of the Museum Hotel Antakya.

Picturing Pegasus

The superb Pegasus or Helikon mosaic, with its Greek inscriptions, is said to contain a remarkable 160 colour shades of plant-dyed tesserae. It was the floor of a chamber that probably would have been a triclinium (dining room), as the main mosaic is surrounded on three sides by a carpet of yellow and white poised squares on which the couches would have been set. The main panel is bordered by a beautiful collection of animal ‘paintings’ in mosaic. Pairs of dogs, goats, deer, hares, and birds face each other over food on eight landscape-shaped panels, while birds flutter in the corner squares.

right An interpretive reconstruction from 1996 suggesting how the Aldborough Helikon mosaic might have appeared. The Muses overlook the nymphs of the Hippokrene and Agannippe springs, and the central panel may have held a scene of the grooming of Pegasus. As on the new mosaic, a mask-bearing figure survived at the far right.
An interpretive reconstruction from 1996 suggesting how the Aldborough Helikon mosaic might have appeared. The Muses overlook the nymphs of the Hippokrene and Agannippe springs, and the central panel may have held a scene of the grooming of Pegasus. As on the new mosaic, a mask-bearing figure survived at the far right. Image: Anthony Beeson/

The wonderful central Pegasus scene occupies most of the floor and depicts the inspiring steed having his hoofs bathed by one water nymph, while another is about to garland his neck with a flower wreath. They are garlanded themselves with reeds, as befits water nymphs, and they probably represent the naiads associated with the Hippokrene and Agannippe springs, which reputedly rose where Pegasus’ hoofs struck Mount Helikon. Drinking and bathing in their waters was supposed to be artistically stimulating. Behind them is a marvellous beribboned and garlanded female centaur, holding a cornucopia from which flows the Hippokrene or ‘Horse’s Fountain’, whose water was supposed to bring forth poetic inspiration. The third female is not wreathed with reeds as a naiad and, unless one is seeing an elaborate arrangement of head scarves, seems to be wearing a Corinthian helmet, which would identify her as the goddess Minerva. Ovid’s Metamorphoses chronicles her visit to Helikon to see Pegasus (‘whom I saw born’) and to see the marvellous spring (Hippokrene) that he had created. She holds a box that seems full of wide ribbons, no doubt to tie about his waist.

The 5th-century AD mosaic featuring a bust of Megalopsychia, or magnanimity. Calm and beautiful, she holds a measuring rod. Image: Roberto Russo/

A slightly enigmatic Greek inscription appears on the mosaic, starting with an isolated gamma (Γ). The text has been kindly translated for me by Dr Antony Makrinos. He writes,

I suggest it reads: Γ ΕΥΠΟΡΟΣ ΕΨΗΦΟΘΕΤΕΙ. ΕΥΠΟΡΟΣ, when used for persons, means wealthy, rich (also: ingenious, inventive). The word still survives in Modern Greek with the meaning of ‘rich’. ΨΗΦΟΘΕΤΩ means ‘to make tessellated pavements’ and here it is the third person Imperfect Active Indicative contract verb. So, ‘a wealthy/inventive (man) made this tessellated pavement’. I have no solution for the Γ for now but perhaps it is simply the initial of the man who made the mosaic, boasting of his inventiveness.

The Pegasus panel faced the diners, but three panels celebrating the Muses greeted the guest on entering the room. These Muses are also linked by the theme of Helikon to Pegasus. The central panel was the longest and featured eight of the nine Muses, who were daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne (memory). On either side were smaller panels. That to the left depicted personifications of Mount Helikon, the home of the Muses, and Boeotia, where it is situated. Above his nameplate, the garlanded Helikon relaxes in the manner of Apollo, Patron of the Muses. His arm rests on his head in the artistic tradition of repose and he holds the branch of a tree, perhaps the inspiring bay-laurel that was sacred to the god. It does, though, look more like a conifer, and the mountain was renowned for its ancient woods, grass, and flowers. Below his nameplate, the other personification – Boeotia, the scene of many of the stories of Greek mythology – is depicted as a shepherd wearing the country petasos (sun hat) and holding a goat.

A panel on the right-hand side depicts the ninth Muse, Kalliope, leader of the sisters, giving Hesiod (Hesiodos) a cut rod of bay-laurel and poetic inspiration below Mount Helikon, where he was herding his lambs. Hesiod afterwards recorded the event and sang the praises of the Muses in his Theogony; together, the three Muses panels must refer to this episode.

left Remains of baths and water mains survive adjacent to the great mosaic. The dry riverbed beyond holds many of the steel columns on which the hotel is supported.
Remains of baths and water mains survive adjacent to the great mosaic. The dry riverbed beyond holds many of the steel columns on which the hotel is supported. Photo: Engin Gerçek.

The central panel shows a line-up of the eight Muses wearing the feather crowns plucked from the Sirens after winning a musical contest against them. Unusually, each Muse is named as well as being identified by her attribute. In addition, they are not arranged in the order that Hesiod lists them in the Theogony, with Thaleia (Thalia) closing the group on the right.

This new Pegasus and the Muses mosaic is very interesting for comparative study with the Muses mosaic from the Roman town at Aldborough in the UK. As with the Antakya mosaic, the row of Muses at Aldborough also included both their attributes and, seemingly, their names written, in the one surviving case, on a scroll. Another parallel at Aldborough is that the Muses are not in the order given by Hesiod, but end on the right with a mask-bearing goddess, presumably once again Thaleia, Muse of Comedy, or Melpomene, for Tragic Poetry. Beside ‘Thaleia’ is the Greek inscription ‘Helikon’ and a stylised mountain. Possibly ‘Boeotia’ once was also symmetrically inscribed at the other end of the row of Muses, if this followed an artistic formula.

Both of the nymphs of the Helikon springs featured in an apse at Aldborough, either side of a rectangular panel whose contents are unfortunately now lost. Given the importance of Pegasus to Helikon, I have previously suggested that a scene showing the steed, perhaps being groomed, may have occupied this panel, so the discovery of an actual Muses mosaic joined to such a scene perhaps strengthens the suggestion.

Antakya’s wonderful 2nd-century Helikon mosaic was eventually buried, presumably after one of the many earthquakes that shook Antioch in antiquity, but mosaics continued to be laid. The 5th-century mosaic features a portrayal of Megalopsychia, or magnanimity and greatness of soul. She also represented those possessing the qualities of a noble mind and heart, and a refusal to be petty. She is depicted in a central roundel as a calm and beautiful woman holding a measuring rod. Around her, the rest of the floor is a veritable aviary of wild and domestic birdlife.

The great mosaic

It is believed that the vast 1,050m² 4th-century geometric mosaic formed the floor of a huge public building adjoining or next to a set of baths. The latter’s hypocausts and water-pipes fill one corner of the archaeological park, overlooking the now gravelled site of a dried-up riverbed. The great mosaic was damaged during a series of major earthquakes in AD 526 and 528, and the incredible undulations caused by those catastrophes may be seen still on its surface. The mosaic was so well founded, however, that it remained attached to its mortar base. The great mosaic consists of a series of square and differing geometric panels, each big enough to fill a large reception room, placed side by side. Incredibly, it employs small tesserae, an astonishing achievement for such a vast area. The palette employed is unusual and pleasing, consisting of various shades of brown, ochre, and buff.

Walkways allow visitors to explore the archaeological park and admire the mosaics, including this portion of the great mosaic, while the Museum Hotel itself incorporates prefabricated rooms (inset), slotted into a steel framework designed to preserve the underlying archaeology. Photos: courtesy of the Museum Hotel Antakya.

A marble relief identified as Eros was another discovery. It looks very much like a sarcophagus lid. He holds an upturned and guttering torch, the symbol of death or unrequited love. If death, then he may be Thanatos and not Eros. In total, more than 35,000 small finds were made, dating from all periods back to the 3rd century BC.Having unearthed such wonders, the great problem was how to continue with the idea of the luxury hotel and not to damage the archaeology. A futuristic solution was found by award-winning Turkish architect Emre Arolat. His bold and much-praised plan was to raise the entire hotel on 66 steel columns, so that it now floats on a steel frame above the archaeology, which is visible through glass floors and from open walkways. The columns were mostly planted in the dried-up riverbed that crossed the site and other places devoid of archaeological deposits. The architect used modular prefabricated guest and public rooms, which were made off-site and slotted into the steel framework so as not to damage the archaeology during construction. The lobby, restaurant, and lounge are on the lower floors, with glass panels allowing guests to view the archaeological park below; bedrooms also enjoy views down to the mosaics and gardens. Bedrooms and public rooms are all decorated with motifs from the mosaics. The archaeological zone is now part of the new publicly owned and operated Necmi Asfurog˘lu Archaeology Museum (NAAM), named after the owner. It allows guests to journey through 2,300 years of history and unlock the mysteries of Antioch.

Eleven years after the discovery, the 200-room Museum Hotel Antakya opened to an admiring public early in 2020, only to be closed shortly afterwards – hopefully temporarily – due to the coronavirus pandemic.