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Archaeology of politics: Turkey vs. Germany

From DW:

An argument between Germany and Turkey about ancient treasures is escalating. Turkey wants its treasures back, but German archaeologists say Turkish sites are being exploited for tourism.

Archaeology often has a lot to do with politics – the current argument between Germany and Turkey is a prime example. Hermann Parzinger, head of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, last December accused Turkey of displaying “almost chauvinistic behavior.” In reply, the Turkish culture minister Ömer Celik told German news magazine “Der Spiegel” that he demanded an apology, and he asked for five ancient objects to be returned that are currently shown in museums in Berlin. He claims they were taken out of Turkey illegally. Parzinger rejects any accusations of illegality for three of these objects: In December 2012, he said that the torso of the Fisherman of Aphrodisias, the sarcophagus from the Haci Ibrahim Veli tomb and a 13th-century prayer niche were all acquired legally.

But “legal” is a fluid concept in the world of archaeology. The export of ancient treasures from the Ottoman Empire has been prohibited by law since 1884. At the same time though, it wasn’t unusual to share the treasures discovered in excavations with teams from abroad. Special permission was often given to take objects out of the country, and there was a flourishing black market. The issue is often less a matter of legality than of morality.

In this context, the tone that Turkey has recently used in its quest to get ancient treasures back from museums like the Metropolitan in New York and the British Museum in London is surprising. The Turkish culture minister’s announcement that he’s only asking for objects “that are rightfully ours” is a sign of Turkey’s new-found – some might say, excessive – self-confidence. Other countries have already felt the effects: two French excavation sites have been recently shut down.

Fight for the Sphinx

In 2011, then Culture Minister Ertugrul Günay reclaimed the more than 3,000-year-old Sphinx of Hattusa, which had been shown in a Berlin museum since World War I. If the Sphinx were not returned, said the minister, the German Archaeological Institute would lose its excavation permits in Turkey. The Sphinx was indeed returned, but without recognition of any legal claim: it was a goodwill gesture, according to Parzinger. In return, he was hoping for substantial loans from Turkey for a big Pergamon exhibition in Berlin last year. But the loans never arrived.

The agreement on more intensive cooperation between the two countries’ museums and archaeologists which was signed at the time seems to have been merely for show. Parzinger has complained publicly that Turkey hasn’t kept a single promise. He says there have only been more demands for the return of objects, as well as accusations that German archaeologists left “devastated landscapes” at excavation sites.

According to Ernst Pernicka, long-time head of excavation in Troy, there is no truth in that. He believes Turkey is using archaeologists as hostages to get the objects back that they want. Last year, Pernicka says, he and other top archaeologists were asked by the Turkish authorities to go to German museums to call for the return of a number of ancient objects. Turkish authorities deny this.

Another problem Pernicka sees is that Turkey is keen to conserve the sites and use them for tourism rather than for ongoing research. The government wants “archaeology in action.” But that often gets in the way of research, says Pernicka.

Ancient cities under water

The Turkish historian Edhem Eldem is also unhappy about the expectation that foreign archaeologists are expected to ensure that their sites are suitable for tourists. He puts it down to “growing nationalism” and the victory of economic interests.

“The fact that archaeology is part of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism shows how ambivalent the situation is,” says Eldem. He also laments the government’s double standards. If it makes economic sense, the authorities have no problem sacrificing important sites like Allianoi or Hasankeyf, which are on a level with Pompeii, for a dam project. Allianoi, an ancient city close to Pergamum, has already been flooded. And despite international protest, the same fate awaits Hasankeyf.

“International archaeology can only flourish in an atmosphere of mutual respect,” says Felix Pirson, head of the German Archaeological Institute in Istanbul. He doesn’t approve of the harsh tone that has dominated the German-Turkish debate recently. He sees the excavations in Anatolia, where “decisive developments in the history of man were continued, enriched and accelerated,” as an international task.

Confrontation doesn’t help anybody

Today, there are many teams already working under German leadership but with international membership. It’s not just German archaeologists who believe that dealing with World Cultural Heritage sites should be a common task not restricted by national borders. They also agree that questions need to be asked about the origin of ancient treasures which are taken out of their country. But it is clear that political confrontation and rigid demands don’t help anybody, including Turkey. The habit of reclaiming archaeological finds could come back to haunt Istanbul if Lebanon decides to ask for the return of the famous sarcophagus of Alexander. It was taken to Istanbul’s Archaeological Museum in 1887, during the time of the Ottoman Empire.

Filed under: Archaeology, Heritage, Illicit trade & looting, , , , , , , ,

Turkey waging ‘art war’ to repatriate artifacts from foreign museums

From Spiegel:

If one were to describe the current mood in Turkey in one word, it would be pride. Once decried as the “sick man of the Bosporus,” the nation has regrouped and emerged as a powerhouse. Turkey’s political importance is growing, and its economy is booming.

In cultural matters, however, Turkey remains a lightweight. To right this deficiency, the government plans to build a 25,000-square-meter (270,000-square-foot) “Museum of the Civilizations” in the capital. “Ankara will proudly accommodate the museum,” boasts Minister of Culture and Tourism Ertugrul Günay. “Our dream is the biggest museum in the world

And why should Turkey be modest? Isn’t Anatolia home to the most magnificent ruins in the entire world? Even so, it must be noted that the Turks themselves can claim little credit for their archeological treasures. Their ancestors, the Seljuks, only arrived from the steppes of Central Asia in the 11th century. Christian Constantinople, now known as Istanbul, fell in 1453.

Before then, however, Hittites, Greeks, Romans and Byzantines had built enormous palaces, monasteries and amphitheaters in the region. Whether it was Homer, Thales or King Midas — they all lived on the other side of the Dardanelles.

When the new Muslim masters took over, the region’s illustrious past faded into obscurity. The water-pipe-smoking caliphs were more concerned with pursuing their own interests.

But things are different in modern Turkey, and the country is embracing its heritage. A powerful antiquities bureaucracy has grown up in recent years. Throughout the country, Turkish archeologists are excavating Stone Age sanctuaries, Greek theaters and ancient churches.

Robbed of Its Treasures

Turkey envisions the giant new museum in Ankara as the crown jewel in its effort to embrace a multicultural past. Contracts for the project have already been signed, and organizers hope to open the new museum in 2023 so as to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the Turkish Republic.

The assertive and ambitious plan has caused a stir in Europe and the United States since Turkish officials also intend to fill their new display cases with treasures that they don’t even own (yet), artifacts that were smuggled out of the country long ago.

Turkey, more than other countries, has lost many of its ancient treasures to thieves and blackmarketeers. Although the Ottoman Empire imposed a ban on the exportation of antiquities in 1906, a well-organized local mafia has continued to wreak havoc in Turkey.

For example, in the early 1960s, among the remains of the ancient city of Boubon in southwestern Turkey, thieves discovered a Roman temple filled with more than 30 life-size bronze imperial statues. It would have been a global sensation — but the public never saw the statues. Instead, unbeknownst to the authorities, they all vanished into the voracious pipelines of the global antiquities trade.

Demands and Rejections

Now Turkey is striking back. It wants these wrongs to be righted. An investigative committee in Ankara was recently reinforced with legal experts to wage what has been dubbed an “art war.” The country has set itself “on a collision course with many of the world’s leading museums,” writes the British trade publication The Art Newspaper.

Berlin’s Pergamon Museum has already felt the brunt of Turkey’s new toughness. Last year, the museum returned a stone sphinx to Turkey. Almost 100 years ago, the figure arrived in pieces in Berlin, where it was painstakingly restored.

As if that weren’t enough, the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, which administers Berlin’s state museums, now admits that it has also received other demands.

For instance, Turkey is demanding the return of a more than 2,000-year-old marble torso (“Old Fisherman from Aphrodisias”) from the antiquities collection. It also wants the Museum of Islamic Art to return the ornamental structure of a Medieval tomb, as well as a prayer niche from Konya, a city in central Anatolia, that adorned a 13th-century mosque.

No one is willing to comment on the exact status of the negotiations. Or, rather, all they will say is that the objects in question have been in Berlin for more than a century. For now, at least, repatriation has been rejected.

According to a brief statement, Theodor Wiegand, who would later become the museum’s director, bought the statue of the fisherman from an art dealer in Izmir in 1904. Demanding the return of such objects, says one insider, is “absurd.”

American Museums in the Crosshairs

The conflict is bound to become heated given the Turks’ brusque and unrelenting behavior. “We don’t want a dispute,” says Culture Minister Günay. Nevertheless, he is threatening to impose a ban on loaning items to German museums and to expel foreign excavation teams if his request is ignored.

American museums are in a particularly tough position. Their curators have been relatively cavalier about acquiring works from shady dealers without digging too deeply into the antiquities’ provenance. Now it’s time to atone for those sins:

The J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles is being asked to surrender 10 of its most beautiful artifacts.

The Washington-based museum of Dumbarton Oaks, a research institute owned by Harvard University, fears for its precious Sion Treasure of 6th-century Byzantine liturgical silverware.

The Cleveland Museum of Art has 22 disputed objects, including “The Stargazer,” a 5,000-year-old Cycladic marble figurine once owned by Nelson Rockefeller, as well as one of the oldest statues of Jesus Christ, which depicts him as a “good shepherd.”

Victories and Ongoing Battles

The campaign is getting a boost from support at the highest level. When Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited the United States last year, he returned home with the “Weary Hercules” in his luggage. Under great pressure, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts had decided to return the 1,900-year-old marble statue.

Nothing is known about the details of the deal. All the museums have been tightlipped about the deal, which was negotiated behind closed doors.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York initially denied that it was even affected. It was only a blog called “Chasing Aphrodite” that brought to light the extent to which the Turkish repatriation committee had pursued America’s biggest temple to art.

There are 18 disputed pieces at the Met, including a gold statue of a goddess and silver, animal-shaped vessels from the Hittite Empire. They are from the collection of Norbert Schimmel, a millionaire and museum trustee who died in 1990. He once admitted that his passion for collecting “borders on madness.”

It isn’t a good sign.

As a precaution, the Met beefed up its legal department and wrote a letter to Erdogan.

The Louvre in Paris is also fighting back. It refuses to relinquish a collection of colorful tiles from the mausoleum of Selim II (who died in 1574). One of the sultan’s dentists had acquired the precious tiles in the 19th century “in good faith,” as the French are claiming.

The Turks, for their part, say that the dentist was a swindler. In retaliation, they have revoked their adversary’s most important excavation license. Now French archeologists are no longer permitted to work at the Xanthos UNESCO World Heritage Site, which is a serious setback.

Victims or Hypocrites?

Is this fair? Critics are openly airing their displeasure with Turkey’s behavior online. Instead of lodging complaints, they argue, Turkey ought to return the Obelisk of Theodosius, which stands in Istanbul, to Egypt.

Indeed, the Ottomans themselves weren’t squeamish when it came to appropriating cultural goods. They stole artifacts in Mecca and allowed a private British citizen to pry away the frieze from the Parthenon in Athens — in return for a lot of money. During the Turkish invasion of northern Cyprus in 1974, the occupiers emptied out entire museums.

“The Turks are too determined to depict themselves as victims of cultural oppression to accept that foreign museums and archaeologists have also played a part in saving their treasures,” the Economist wrote in May. For example, when the German archeologist Carl Humann entered the majestic ruins of Pergamon in 1864, he saw large numbers of lime kilns in use. Workers were smashing ancient marble columns and throwing the pieces into the fire. After reaching a deal with the Ottoman government, he then brought the Pergamon Altar back to Berlin to be the centerpiece of a museum of the same name. But Turkey has long called for its repatriation.

Other questions include: How much of a moral right do the Turks have to repatriation? And how well-documented are their ownership claims?The British Museum has already decide not to give in to Turkey’s demand for the repatriation of the Samsat Stele. Archeologist Leonard Woolley discovered the stone tablet with a farmer in 1911. He later took it with him to Syria, where the authorities issued him the necessary export permit.

At the time, Woolley felt that he was doing a noble deed, and that he had in fact rescued the heavy stone tablet. The farmer had been using it as an olive press.

Filed under: Archaeology, Heritage, Illicit trade & looting, , , , ,

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