Turkey has demanded that Germany return an ancient sphinx that has been kept in Berlin for nearly a century. If it's not returned, German archeologists could be evicted from their Anatolian digs.
Germany has indicated a willingness to return the Hattusa sphinx to Turkey
German archaeologists could find themselves evicted from a dig they have been working on for over a century, unless their greatest discovery - an ancient sphinx - is returned to Turkey.
Some 3,500 years ago, the magnificent city of Hattusa, capital of the Hittite Empire, was one of the Bronze Age's largest settlements. Based in the heart of Anatolia, and then swallowed up by the earth for millennia, it was rediscovered in the 19th century.
German archaeologists began to unearth the site in 1906, but possibly their greatest discovery could lead to them being evicted.
"An important artifact was removed from Hattusa and never given back, although we have been asking for it for many years," said Turkey's minister for culture, Ertugrul Günay, referring to a sphinx that was taken to Berlin for restoration and is currently on display at the Pergamon Museum.
"Also, I have seen no major progress there for years, no restorations, not even the simplest preservation measures," Günay said. "If, in addition to all that, an artifact is not returned, then why should I let that institute continue to dig here?"
The minister for culture said he had told the German authorities of his objections, and had made it clear that the license for the archaeological dig at Hattusa, a UNESCO World Heritage site, was under threat.
The outline of the Great Temple and its storerooms can be seen at the Hattusa dig
Turkey raises the stakes
Turkey has been requesting the sphinx's return for some time, but has now issued a deadline. If the sphinx is not returned by June, a Turkish team will take over at Hattusa, Günay says.
The recent eviction of a German archaeological team working at another Anatolian site, the ancient Roman town of Aizanoi, is an indication that the threat is by no means empty.
"In recent years, the excavation leader for Aizanoi would show up there for no more than two weeks a year, if at all," Ertugul Günay said. "They acted as if there was nothing left to do there, so we have turned it over to a Turkish team."
German archaeologist Ralf von den Hoff, who led the dig in Aizanoi until last month, sharply objected to this criticism, saying he had spent 10 weeks on the dig over the past two years.
The Istanbul office of the German Archaeological Institute, which runs most German digs in Turkey, including Hattusa and - until recently - Aizanoi, also disagrees with the Turkish minister for culture's accusations of stagnation on site.
"In Hattusa, we recently restored a segment of the city walls; that was a big project. Also, we restored the Lion Gate and built access roads for visitors," institute director Felix Pirson told Deutsche Welle. "As for Aizanoi, it is not true that we only showed up there two weeks a year, last year our colleagues spent seven weeks there."
The so-called Lion Gate was one one of the main entrances to the city
The German archaeologists have said their licenses to dig are being used as political leverage, a kind of ransom as Turkey aims to recover the missing sphinx. The sphinx's fate, however, is a matter for the German foreign ministry to decide.
Late last week, Berlin's State Secretary for Culture André Schmitz told the dpa news agency that the sphinx should be returned to Turkey. While the statement indicates that Berlin is open to negotiation, it remains unclear how and when the dispute will be resolved.
Regardless, the row is a sign of Turkey's growing interest in archaeology, and the increased competition that western European diggers - who once had free rein in Anatolia - can expect in the future.
"Turkey has many scientists who want to work in this field," Günay said. "We have new universities in Turkey, we have new archaeological institutes and plenty of committed and enthusiastic archaeologists. So if we do not see the desired level of cooperation here, we will not hesitate to turn these excavations over to our own universities."
Turkey is expanding its archaeological activity, and investing more money in the field, its scientists are excavating 110 sites around the country. Minister Günay stressed that German archaeologists were still welcome partners in Turkey, on certain conditions.
Author: Susanne Güsten, Ankara / msh
Editor: Kate Bowen