Fri, Jan 25, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Turkey fights a lopsided cultural war

Ankara is baying for the return of artifacts from museums across the globe and is accused of resorting to strong-arm tactics, while at the same time allowing the destruction of valuable excavation sites

By Constanze Letsch and Kate Connolly  /  The Guardian, ISTANBUL and BERLIN

Illustration: Mountain People

Turkey has been accused of cultural chauvinism and attempting to blackmail some of the world’s most important museums in the wake of its demands for the return of thousands of archeological treasures.

According to cultural bosses in Berlin, Paris and New York, Turkey has threatened to bar foreign archeologists from excavation sites in the country by not renewing their digging permits if governments refuse to return artifacts that Ankara says were unlawfully removed from Turkish soil. It has also threatened to halt the lending of its treasures to foreign museums, they say.

The government in Ankara, emboldened by the country’s growing diplomatic and economic clout, has repeatedly said that the retrieval of the artifacts is part of a policy it intends to pursue for years, if necessary, calling it a “cultural war.” However, it denies withholding permits as a form of leverage.

The German Archeological Institute, founded in 1829 and responsible for some of Turkey’s most important excavation sites, says it has already felt the wrath of the Turkish authorities, after they threatened to withdraw excavation permits unless a huge 3,300-year-old Hittite sphinx was returned. When the sphinx arrived in Turkey to much fanfare last year, permits for reconditioning and restoration work were renewed, but those for digging remained outstanding.

Hermann Parzinger, president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation in Berlin, which among other collections oversees the city’s Pergamon Museum, has accused Turkey of “playing a nasty game of politics” and of “threatening the future” of scientific work and other collaborations.

“The Turks are engaging in a rather aggressive style of politics,” he said. “They are trying to blackmail us and others by pushing foreign archeologists out. Their new tactic is to accuse us of not investing enough in the infrastructure of the digs.”

Since the return of the sphinx — which Parzinger insists Germany did as a gesture of goodwill despite being under no legal obligation to do so — Turkey has demanded that three further objects be handed over by the Pergamon. They are the more than 2,000-year-old marble torso from the old fisherman statue found in Hadrianic baths of Aphrodisias, a medieval gravestone and parts of a 13th-century mihrab (prayer niche) from Konya.

“All the artifacts were acquired legally more than a century ago and we are under no legal obligation to return them,” Parzinger said.

Turkey is also in dispute with the Louvre in Paris, which has refused requests to return objects. Ankara retaliated two years ago with a ban on French archeologists digging in Turkey.

Turkish officials are also at loggerheads with the Norbert Schimmel collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York over 18 objects they claim were illegally excavated, and with the British Museum in London over the Samsat Stele, a basalt slab from the 1st century BC.

Ankara says it only wants back what rightfully belongs to Turkey.

Turkish Minister of Culture and Tourism Ertugrul Gunay said 4,067 artifacts were returned from 2002 to last year. He said Ankara’s demands coincided with a new-found pride in the country’s cultural heritage.

“Our museum inventory is now on a par with that of European museums,” Gunay said recently. “The times when we simply exhibited artifacts in cupboards is over. We have caught up — what we have taken back is only a very small part of what we will take back.”

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