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

He added that over the past five years, Turkey had “spent more on history” than any other European country.

Turkey is gearing itself up for the opening in 2023 — the centenary of the founding of the Turkish Republic — of the 2.5 hectare Museum of Civilizations in Ankara, which is due to showcase many of Turkey’s best cultural treasures.

However, archeologists working in Turkey point to what they say is a sharp contradiction between the government’s zealous attempts to retrieve artifacts and its apparent negligence toward valuable excavation sites that are the talk of the archeological world.

Among the most prominent is Allianoi, a Roman bath and spa complex in Izmir Province, which was flooded in February 2011 on the orders of the government after the Yortanli Dam was constructed.

“Allianoi was destroyed despite our efforts to save the baths. The government preferred profit over the preservation of such an important heritage site,” said Ahmet Yaras, an archeologist at Thrace University.

Yaras, who spearheaded the efforts to save the archeological site, has been refused a digging permit for the past three years.

“It feels like I’m being punished by the Turkish government because I tried to save Allianoi,” he said.

The eastern garrison town of Zeugma from 300 BC is another historical site lost to the waters of a large dam project. Hasankeyf, a bronze-age town on the banks of the Tigris, is awaiting a similar fate.

In the central Anatolian town of Konya, the 5,000-year-old Askar Hoyuk burial ground was recently covered over with concrete and turned into a recreational area.

At Yenikapi, where a Byzantine harbor and 8,000-year-old human remains were found, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently outraged the archeological community by ordering the excavation there to come to a rapid end as it was holding up construction of the prestigious Marmaray tunnel underneath the Bosphorus, which is aimed at easing traffic congestion in Istanbul.

A Turkish archeologist, who did not want to be named, said he was heartbroken that the government appeared to be destroying sites at the same time as battling for the return of artifacts.

“I don’t understand the attitude of the government,” he said. “This contradiction is truly mind-boggling.”

“Of course, [the Turkish government] has the right to demand the return of certain artifacts, but they should never try to do this by threatening foreign excavation sites,” he added. “One thing should not be confused with the other.”

Asked if he felt Turkey had, if not a moral claim then a legal one, on the return of certain treasures, Parzinger said: “You have to understand that it was right at the time to bring these objects [to Germany] in order to protect them, but the times have since changed.”

The Pergamon altar, which is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Berlin, was narrowly saved from destruction in the 1860s by the German engineer, architect and archeologist Carl Humann.

“Many believe that the Pergamon altar stood in the Anatolian sun until the Germans dragged it away,” Parzinger said. “But the truth is that Humann had watched in horror as reliefs were being loaded into lime kilns … on the basis of contracts made according to the law governing antiques at the time, it was arranged for the reliefs to be brought to Berlin and so it was saved.”

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