Turkey: To Regain Antiquities, Ankara Plays Archeological Hardball
Having played host over the centuries to Greeks, Romans, the Byzantines and other great cultures, the land that comprises modern-day Turkey is filled with numerous and valuable archeological sites. To view some of the more extraordinary finds from many of those sites, though, requires going to museums in other countries. For example, the altar of Zeus from the ancient city of Pergamon, dug up by a German team in the late 1800's, resides in Berlin, while other valuable artifacts originally found in Turkey are housed in assorted European and American museums. Filled with a renewed sense of political and economic self-confidence, Ankara is now looking for ways to regain those antiquities, resorting, if need be, to playing hardball. From a very interesting recent Newsweek article on the subject:
The Turkish government has decided that it can score nationalist points by launching a vocal campaign to recover ancient Anatolian artifacts from foreign museums. Over the last year the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism has resorted to ever-more aggressive measures, from threatening to suspend the excavation licenses of foreign archeological teams to blocking the export of museum exhibits. Last month, for instance, the ministry announced that it would not issue export licenses for several dozen museum pieces due to be displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the British Museum, and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. As a result, important exhibitions—Byzantium and Islam at the Met, The Hajj: Journey to the Heart of Islam at the British Museum, and The Ottomans at the V&A—have either had to scramble to find alternative artifacts in non-Turkish collections or delay the exhibitions altogether.
As the Newsweek article makes clear, though, while Ankara may be accusing American and European museums of practicing cultural imperialism, Turkey itself could be charged with committing the same offense. Istanbul's Archeology Museum is filled with artifacts excavated by Ottoman archeologists in Lebanon, Egypt and other countries that were once controlled by the sultans. And many of the artifacts Turkey refused to lend for The Hajj exhibit in London are actually not Turkish but rather objects taken during Ottoman times from what is now Saudi Arabia.Meanwhile, in a recent post on the International Herald Tribune's Latitude blog, veteran Turkey correspondent Andrew Finkel suggests that rather than playing tough with museums abroad, Ankara should focus its energy on protecting its vulnerable cultural assets at home. From Finkel's post:
No one should dispute Turkey’s right to protect its own archaeological heritage from thieves. Nor should there be any question of Turkey’s obligation to recover objects smuggled abroad. But the effort and expense of fighting over long-lost objects in Britain would be better employed on improving the deplorable state of cultural management at home.
The destruction by treasure seekers around Turkey’s major archaeological sites is enormous, yet the government doesn’t take practical steps to stop it. For starters, Ankara should enforce existing laws meant to protect antiquities. The government could also ban the sale or licensing of metal detectors to stop treasure hunters from looting the countryside around archaeological sites. Moreover, there is no proper archaeological inventory for the much-visited site of Cappadocia in Central Anatolia or even for Istanbul. The authorities should see that such inventories are completed to protect properties from avaricious developers.
Indeed, recent years have seen a string of embarrassing episodes take place at some of Turkey's most prized museums and cultural institutions. Several employees at Istanbul's Topkapi Palace, former home of the sultans, were reassigned last year after it turned out that they moved valuable artifacts -- including the throne of Sultan Selim III -- out of the Harem and into the private residence of the palace museum's director. Unable to fit the throne through the residence's doorway, the workers reportedly left the Ottoman treasure in the rain for some time until a solution could be found. And earlier this year, two palace workers were dismissed after being caught on camera having sex in a wing of the palace used for displaying, of all things, religious items.