Matthews, Owen, Newsweek International
Byline: Owen Matthews
Turkey's government is playing hardball to repatriate archeological treasures.
In the summer Of 1878 a German road engineer named Carl Humann armed himself with an excavation permit from the sultan and a team of workers paid for by wealthy Berlin backers and began digging on the slopes of a hill in Bergama, near modern Izmir, Turkey. The ancient Altar of Zeus that he unearthed, with its dramatic frieze of the battle between the Gods and the Giants, proved to be one of the most beautiful and important discoveries in the history of classical archeology. The altar was exported--with the sultan's permission--to a specially built museum in Berlin. But the German archeologists remained, and over the last 130 years have painstakingly excavated the ancient city of Pergamon, making it the best-chronicled and second-oldest (after Olympia in Greece) ongoing archeological dig in the world.
But now this generations-old scientific effort is under threat. 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.
"It's hard to see this as anything other than blackmail," says one Western museum curator, who requested anonymity because she still holds out hope for improved cooperation with Turkey in the future. "To threaten international archeological efforts as a way of forcing the return of disputed artifacts is absolutely unethical," as is the "disruption of exhibitions designed to improve international cultural understanding."
The Turks, for their part, are unabashed. "It is our dream to build the largest museum not only in the Middle East and the Balkan area but in the world," says culture and tourism minister Ertugrul Gunay, referring to a vast new museum planned for Ankara that is due to be complete by the 100th anniversary of the Turkish republic in 2023. "We are very happy because of our recent successes in bringing back artwork that has been illegally smuggled from Turkey."
And indeed, everyone in the archeological community agrees that Turkey has a legitimate claim to recover antiquities illegally excavated by thieves and exported by unscrupulous smugglers. One such artifact recently brought back to Turkey--by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan himself after an official visit to Washington, D.C., last year--was the top half of an 1,800-year-old statue of Weary Hercules. The statue was smuggled out of Turkey 40 years ago and unwittingly bought by Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, which voluntarily returned it. The Metropolitan Museum in New York has also handed back a stolen hoard of Lycian gold to Turkey, an ancient pot to Italy, and 19 items illegally taken from the tomb of King Tutankhamen to Egypt. In total, some 4,519 stolen artifacts have been brought back to Turkey since 1998.
But political problems have arisen with less clear-cut cases--usually involving items exported in the dying days of the Ottoman Empire. The Turks have demanded the British Museum return a carved stone exported from a part of Turkish territory that was under French administration in the 1920s, for instance. …