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A part of the Pergamon Altar (photo: Oliver Berg dpa/lnw)
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Turkish artifacts

Dorian Jones, Istanbul / gsw
September 26, 2012

Archaeologists have long been drawn to Turkey as a center of human civilization for thousands of years. The Turkish government has launched an aggressive policy seeking to bring back Turkish artifacts housed elsewhere.


Turkey is undergoing a museum revolution. New museums are springing up across the country, with plans for plenty more in years to come and big renovation projects underway in existing museums. Turkish Culture Minister Ertugrul Gunay is the driving force between the various projects that aim to harness Turkey's rich heritage.

The country's ambitions can have implications for world-class museums in the US, England, France and Germany, which are home to a host of precious artifacts from Turkey, Italy, Egypt and Greece.

"In the past, some were removed with some sort of foundation in law, but others were just looted from our historical sites. I am fighting to retrieve our historical artifacts that went to the big museums of the world illegally," Gunay said.

The culture minister has already helped bring legal cases against major world museums, and he initiated a boycott of international institutions housing Turkish artifacts. For example, Gunay vetoed lending cultural treasures this year to a major exhibition by the British Museum until the London institution returned artifacts Ankara claims were illegally removed. Last year, Ankara threatened to suspend German archaeologists' permits to work at a major site unless Berlin's Pergamon Museum returned a disputed artifact known as the Hattusa sphinx. The museum complied.

Hundreds of objects in contention

Greek culture ministers talk with Turkey's Culture Minister Ertugrul Gunay (photo: EPA/ALKIS KONSTANTINIDIS/dpa -Bildfunk)
Ertugrul Gunay (l) is seeking allies in his repatriation campaignImage: picture-alliance/dpa

The list of Turkish artifacts housed in European museums numbers above 1,000 and includes ceramic materials like coins, large marble objects, sarcophagi and big statues, said Nezih Basgelen, editor of "Arkeoloji ve Sanat Dergisi," a leading Turkish archaeological magazine.

Turkey's rich past continues to make it a favorite research location for archaeologists from around the world. Turkey's Ministry of Culture sees the country's popularity among scholars as a way to leverage its agenda of artifact repatriation. But Felix Pirson, director of the German Archaeological Institute in Turkey, says Turkey's approach is hurting everyone.

"Turkey is a laboratory for modern archaeology where different scientific traditions and international scientists are coming together. This cooperation must prevail and continue, and this political tit for tat is poisoning such cooperation," Pirson said.

From past to present

That plea may be falling on deaf ears. Turkey is making its past a key part of a new drive to attract tourists. Ads promote the country as a destination that offers more than just sun and beaches, and part of that policy includes building of one of world's largest archaeological museums in the capital, Ankara.

Though magazine editor Basgelen supports bringing artifacts back, he notes that it's important not to ruin relationships and friendships with international partners along the way. Collaboration plays a big role in orchestrating major exhibitions.

"If we discuss logically, we can find some solutions - maybe to keep [artifacts] on as a loan for years. And there everybody can see these pieces, and then everybody wants to see the original place," said Basgelen.

But voices of moderation are being lost in the fiery political rhetoric, with Culture Minister Gunay claiming the issue is also about national honor and righting wrongs dating back for more than a century.

Furthermore, Turkey is enlisting allies in its battle. The country has signed an agreement with Greece to join forces in their struggle to return artifacts to their place of origin, and similar negotiations are underway with Italy and Egypt. Such alliances could force the hand of further international institutions when it comes to holdings that could be traced back to Turkey.

The Hattusha sphinx (photo: Tobias Kleinschmidt/dpa)
The Hattusa sphinx was returned from Germany's Pergamon Museum to TurkeyImage: picture alliance/dpa Fotografia
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