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 Günay, 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. They’ve also claimed two 3,500-year-old sphinxes discovered by German archeologists at the Hittite city of Bogazköy that were sent to Berlin for restoration in 1917, one year before Germany and Turkey’s defeat in the First World War. One sphinx was returned in 1924. But museum directors clearly believed that the Ottoman authorities had agreed that the other was meant to remain in Germany—so sure, in fact, that they built the granite statue into the fabric of Berlin’s Pergamon Museum, supporting an archway.
The Turks began demanding the return of the second sphinx about 10 years ago—but neither side had the documents to prove its case. Last year the Turkish authorities decided to force the issue by threatening to suspend the archeological license of the German Archaeological Institute, or DAI. The threat was so grave that the German government caved, and the sphinx was returned last November.
Shutting down the DAI’s six Turkish digs would have been a shocking act of cultural vandalism. Founded in 1829, the DAI is by far the largest international archeological institution in the world. Its oldest field headquarters, a rustic stone clubhouse and library built among the ruins of Pergamon in 1900, is itself a relic of the history of archeology. Its walls are lined with photographs of past directors and long-gone teams of young archeologists posing in the scorching Anatolian sun. Today 30 young archeologists from all over the world work at Pergamon, uncovering new parts of the ancient city, meticulously recording, photographing, sketching, and cleaning the uncovered artifacts. The dig is considered the finest of its kind in the world. The state-of-the-art iDAI.field computer system for inputting real-time archeological data was pioneered here, along with many techniques for photographing, conserving, and mapping now considered standard across the world. In 2004 a complex of vulnerable newly discovered mosaics was enclosed in a beautiful wood, stone, and steel building designed by award-winning German architects and paid for entirely by the German government. The practice of hauling finds back to the home country was abandoned, of course, more than a century ago—today, all the finds remain in Turkey.
Despite a century of Germany’s investment in the fabric of Pergamon, the local authorities still view the Germans with suspicion. A recent mayor of Bergama ran on a ticket of returning the Altar of Zeus from Berlin, something the ministry itself hasn’t asked for (the paper trail clearly confirms that the altar was legally exported). And the DAI has come under pressure from tourism authorities to spend more resources rebuilding fallen temples to make them more photogenic to visitors rather than meticulously trowelling through ancient sewers and tombs.
When it comes to preserving their own heritage against thieves and developers, however, the Turkish authorities are less enthusiastic. Dr. Felix Pirson, director of the DAI’s Turkish projects, is regularly called out by local police to perform “rescue digs” on ancient tombs around Bergama that have been ripped apart by local treasure hunters. “They use mechanical diggers to level tomb mounds; they destroy the walls of tombs already looted in the 1960s with sledgehammers in the stupid idea that they will find gold hidden behind them,” says Pirson. “I will probably never excavate an untouched Hellenistic tomb because of robbers.” The tomb robbers are organized, systematic, and probably well-integrated into the local community. Few are ever caught.
The Turkish government has also had no qualms about destroying several extremely important archeological sites by authorizing multimillion-dollar dam projects—notably Allianoi (near Pergamon), the best-preserved Roman bath and spa complex in the world, and the early Turkish city of Hasankeyf in southeast Turkey. Prime Minister Erdogan, so assiduous is demanding the return of Weary Hercules, last year summarily ordered archeological digs at a Byzantine harbor at Yenikapi in Istanbul to wind up so that a flagship tunnel project under the Bosporus could press on, obliterating the site forever.
Unfortunately for the British, French, Italian, and Austrian archeological teams working in Turkey, the return of the Hattusha Sphinx from Berlin has only encouraged the authorities to play hardball with other countries too. “The Turks definitely see [the sphinx] as a big success and will refer to it in all possible cases going forward,” says Dr. Lutgarde Vandeput director of British Institute at Ankara, which runs six digs across Turkey, including the Neolithic site at Çatalhöyük, one of the oldest inhabited places on earth. So far the British digs have not been threatened. But a French team at the ancient city of Xanthos had its license revoked and handed over to a Turkish team (the Turks have been lobbying for the return of some 16th-century tiles from the Louvre). “The minister [Günay] has said repeatedly that it’s time for a new generation of Turkish archeologists graduating from new universities to take over,” says Vandeput. “He believes that Turkish academics can do it themselves.”
That kind of nationalism should have no place in an international scientific effort, believes Pirson. “Some voices see excavations as part of colonial heritage. I say that archeology by definition is an international thing,” says Pirson. “Turkey’s great luck is that because of the rich cultures that have flourished here it could be an international laboratory for new archeological techniques. If I were the Ministry of Culture, I would be encouraging this.” The irony is, of course, that Turkey itself excavated plenty of artifacts from distant corners of its empire when setting up its own archeological museum at the end of the 19th century—including the sarcophagus of Alexander the Great from Lebanon and shiploads of statuary from Egypt. Even most of the artifacts that the Turkish government denied the British Museum’s Hajj exhibit are not Turkish at all but taken from Mecca, now in Saudi Arabia, during Ottoman days.
“Once you start demanding the return of things to their supposedly original locations, you quickly reach absurd conclusions,” says one senior European cultural bureaucrat, who requested anonymity. “Should the Mona Lisa be in Italy? Should the obelisk, [the centerpiece of Istanbul’s ancient] hippodrome, be returned to Egypt? This is a recipe for emptying the great museums of the world.” Turkey has no shortage of world-class archeological heritage, much of it shamefully neglected and vulnerable. Perhaps its authorities’ energies would be better spent guarding and preserving what they have rather than pursuing what’s long gone?