Middle East Attempts to Recover Its Plundered Heritage

By Land, Thomas | The Middle East, January 2013 | Go to article overview

Middle East Attempts to Recover Its Plundered Heritage


Land, Thomas, The Middle East


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TURKEY IS AGGRESSIVELY CAMPAIGNING for the return of priceless, ancient artefacts removed from the Middle East often by thieves trading with the connivance of the region's bygone colonial administrators. The resistance mounted by the major museums of Europe and America that hold the treasures is spectacularly crumbling: Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has triumphantly returned home an 1,800-year old statue surrendered to him personally by the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

Other countries of the Middle East are poised to join the Turkish initiative with a promise of some success. But their claims are complicated by the notoriously shifting frontiers within the region.

Indeed, Turkey itself holds treasures taken with the approval of Ottoman officials in the past from neighbouring possessions as well as Southern Europe. In modern times, the 1974 Turkish invasion of Northern Cyprus was followed by the organised, wholesale plunder of artefacts from occupied regions of the island.

The Middle East is rich in ancient artefacts that witnessed the birth of human civilisation. The museums of the region are seeking to overcome the confusion of ownership by raising a single voice for the recovery of their common cultural heritage.

But the plunder of art and antiques is still going on, at a spectacular scale. And the current collapse of security brought by the Arab Spring has emboldened further the illegal antique trade.

For example, the world famous Cairo Museum at Tahrir Square lost some 50 pieces of treasure to looters during the recent riots that toppled the regime of the Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak. Highly organised gangs are engaged in illegal excavations even deploying heavy lifting equipment in many vulnerable archaeological sites dating back some 5,000 years--such as those adjacent to the grand temples of Luxor and the great Giza pyramids--causing untold damage.

Egypt is very close to signing an agreement with Turkey to mount a joint campaign for the recovery of their lost treasures. Greece, a former Turkish possession, has already entered such an accord with Turkey. Many other countries may well join them.

Their move began two years ago in a big way at a two-day Cairo conference called by Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities. The meeting was attended by scholars and administrators from 20 countries that have been exploited by centuries of art and archaeological plunder. One reason for their unfolding collaboration is their common desire to develop their cultural heritage as a means of attracting rich tourist revenues. Turkey is leading the trend with plans to erect the world's biggest museum of the civilisations in Ankara by 2023. The opening of that 25.000sqm museum will be part of the celebrations of the centenary of the Turkish Republic. Another important new architectural museum has just been opened in the city of Izmir. Many more are being planned elsewhere. Existing museums upgraded up and down the country.

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Ertugrul Gunay, the Turkish minister of culture and tourism who likes to describe himself the chieftain of a museum revolution, intends to fill the thousands of empty display cases of all these institutions with stolen antiquity brought back from abroad. …

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