March 5, 2006

Is Turkey doing too little to retrieve its artefacts?

Posted at 10:50 pm in Similar cases

A while ago I posted this interview with Atilla Koc, the Turkish Minister of Culture. Since then, it appears that the original interviewer Nursun Erel saw the elements of her interview which I quoted, which has prompted her to reflect on the problems facing Turkeys restitution claims, the greatest of which is a government that is to willing to avoid making the effort to pursue the claims.
Whilst this may be the case, there are at least people within the country who understand that the problem exists & feel that something should be done about it. This is a positive beginning which will hopefully improve as time goes on.

(Article has previously posted as a comment on the original post)
The New Anatolian

The Elgin Marbles and the Great Altar of Pergamon
Nursun Erel

Even though it’s early on a bright spring-like day, I feel pessimistic. I’ll share with you the reasons why.

Recently I noticed that part of my interview with Culture and Tourism Minister Atilla Koc is posted on a Greek website ( I know what you’re going to say, “What’s wrong with that? You should be happy.”

No, I can’t be, as at the same time I’m a journalist I’m also a Turkish citizen. First let me tell you something about the site. They’re working to combat cultural vandalism and are also engaged in the struggle to get back the Elgin Marbles, which have been at the British Museum for 200 years. Those ancient sculptures were once part of the Parthenon and taken from Athens to Britain in 1806 by Thomas Bruce, seventh earl of Elgin. Since then successive Greek governments have been fighting for the return of the marbles but British politicians continue to claim that the marbles were legally purchased by Elgin so there’s no reason for them to be returned to the Greeks.

You should visit the site and see the efforts they’re making to get back the marbles from the British. One great defender of the cause was former Greek Culture Minister Melina Mercouri, who made dozens of speeches all over the world to get support for the cause.

Now, this is where my problem begins.

It’s about the Great Altar of Pergamon which is now in Berlin.

Pergamon was an ancient city in northwestern Turkey, now Bergama, which became an important kingdom during the Hellenistic period, under the Attalid dynasty (282-129 B.C.).

The Attalids were among the most loyal supporters of Rome among the Hellenistic successor states; they ruled with intelligence and generosity. Many documents survive showing how the Attalids supported the growth of towns through sending in skilled artisans and by remitting taxes. They allowed Greek cities in their domains to maintain nominal independence. They sent gifts to Greek cultural sites like Delphi, Delos and Athens. They defeated the invading Celts. They remodeled the acropolis of Pergamon after the one in Athens. Pergamon had the second-best library in the ancient world after Alexandria.

And let’s see what our culture and tourism minister told me about the altar in the interview:

TNA: Hundreds of Turkish historical artifacts, either stolen by foreigners or granted to them by Ottoman sultans, are kept in various museums all over the world. For example there’s the breathtaking Great Altar of Pergamon in Berlin and many artifacts in the British Museum. Is there any chance of getting them back? How do you feel about this as a Turk and, as a state minister, what’s your policy?

KOC: As a Turk I’m certainly deeply sorry but such kinds of international issues need compromises. Through such a compromise, an international agreement has been reached, Turkey has also signed it, but it doesn’t work retroactively. So it’s a shame that there’s no chance of getting the altar back from Germany; we have no legal right to do so. But now we have a new project to make replicas of these historical artifacts and place them in their original locations and in front of them we’ll put signs saying something like, “The original is now in the Berlin Museum.” We’ll also ask our German colleagues to place similar signs saying something like, “This altar was brought here from Bergama, Turkey.” Even though it breaks my heart, I think that the important thing from now on is not to lose them; if these artifacts hadn’t been stolen from Turkey, maybe we wouldn’t have been able to preserve them as they have been.

TNA: Don’t you think that good will and dialogue could resolve the issue?

KOC: I honestly believe in good will but my mother used to say, “If no one listens to what I have to say, I won’t say a word.”

TNA: I was wondering, once this issue is brought up, how do people respond? For example Cevat Sakir Kabaagacli (famous Turkish author, also known as the “Halikarnas [Halicarnassus] Fisherman”) once wrote a letter to Queen Elizabeth II about the Turkish artifacts at the British Museum, saying, “They’d look better under the Bodrum sun, by the blue sea of Bodrum.” But the reply he got went like this, “We painted the exhibition hall Bodrum blue.”

KOC: I’ll repeat my mother’s words here, “If no one listens to what I have to say, I won’t say a word.”

Now do you agree with me about feeling pessimistic about Turkey’s future? Nowadays everybody seems to be obsessed with Finance Minister Kemal Unakitan, but instead of him they should be focusing on Culture and Tourism Minister Koc. Whereas Unakitan faces accusations for his personal dealings, Koc, who appears to be far from serious about Turkey’s cultural heritage, is getting off scot free.

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