Curators in other countries are alarmed at what they see as growing aggression. A leading museum director even described the campaign as “blackmail”. So what chance has Turkey of winning this new culture war?
At the crossroads of the ancient world, drawing Roman armies from the west and Persian conquerors from the east, Turkey—especially the region of Anatolia—has long been a rich seam of knowledge and treasure from antiquity. In the 19th century teams of European scholars travelled there in search of archaeological remains. Among the most successful was a German unit led by Carl Humann. Armed with a firman, or Ottoman permit, and financed by a group of rich backers in Berlin, Humann and his team, in 1878, began excavating a site in Bergama, near the modern city of Izmir on the Aegean coast of western Turkey.
Humann’s most important discovery was the altar of Zeus, which dates from the second century BC. Its dramatic frieze depicting the battle between the giants and the Olympian gods makes it one of the most distinctive works from the classical world. With the sultan’s permission, the altar was sent to Germany and became the centrepiece of the Pergamon museum in Berlin. Meanwhile, German archaeologists continued to work on the site; today, the ancient city of Pergamon is the second oldest ongoing archaeological dig in the world. German excavations are still the most important of the foreign digs in Turkey, and for decades Turkish archaeologists have been educated in Berlin and other German cities, their studies subsidised by German government grants.
Archaeological teams like Humann’s were soon followed by scholars from Britain and France, and into the 20th century from Italy, Japan and America. Some paid for their projects by selling a portion of their finds to Western collectors who were becoming increasingly enamoured of all things à la Turque. Others removed treasures they believed might be at risk from war and insurrection, and gave them to the new European museums. Foreign scholars saved a considerable number of Turkish artefacts from being commercially looted or destroyed by invading armies. This is rarely mentioned in Turkey’s discussions about its archaeological past.
The precise way in which objects were acquired has kept on changing. Some scholars had formal permission from the Ottoman authorities to take their treasures back to Europe; others were motivated by a wish to preserve and protect and did not bother with obtaining proper permissions or establishing a full and accurate provenance for an object. Looters robbed graves and helped themselves.
Use of force
Western museums house tens of thousands of objects from Turkey. Most of these were given or acquired without full documentation. Though Turkey passed a law in 1884 (updated in 1906) stating that all antiquities were the property of the state and could not be taken out of the country, this was only loosely enforced.