April 12, 2012
Following their requests for the return of the Samsat Stele, Turkey is blocking the planned loan of an artefact to the UK. The author of this article, feels that they should be focussing first on protecting the heritage that they already have in their country, before trying to retrieve items such as this. I still can’t understand though, why when we want an artefact to stay in the UK, this is completely acceptable, but when someone else asks for their (in many cases stolen) artefact to be returned, it is decried as “cultural nationalism.”
New York Times
April 11, 2012, 9:33 am
By ANDREW FINKEL
ISTANBUL — “Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam,” the British Museum’s recreation of Islam’s holy pilgrimage, has attracted much praise and a dash of controversy, as Huma Yusuf recently wrote on Latitude. Meanwhile, another interesting story related to the exhibit has percolated down to Turkey, the successor state to the empire that ruled over Mecca and Medina for centuries and once controlled the major pilgrimage routes.
Turkey was founded in the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, and its great museums – the Topkapi Palace and the Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum – hold many of the important historical artifacts associated with the Hajj.
One such object the museum curators were happy to lend for the London show was an ancient mahmal, a tent-like structure that adorned the back of a camel as the symbol of the authority of a sultan. But the ministry of culture vetoed the loan.
The reason? Turkey is in the middle of a protracted battle with Britain over another ancient artifact.
Since 2005, Ankara has been demanding that the British Museum hand over a First Century B.C. stele, or stone slab, with a sculpted depiction of King Antiochus I Epiphanes that was excavated some time around 1920 by Leonard Woolley near the Syrian border. The British Museum has offered to loan the stele to the Turks, but the chances of giving it back permanently to Turkey – and thereby setting a precedent for Greece to reclaim the Elgin marbles – are slim. Yet Turkey is playing hard ball.
What a mistake. Turkey spends a sultan’s ransom in advertising itself as a tourist destination and lending its treasures to the Hajj exhibit would have been a smart way of doing this at the British Museum’s expense.
No one should dispute Turkey’s right to protect its own archaeological heritage from thieves. Nor should there be any question of Turkey’s obligation to recover objects smuggled abroad. But the effort and expense of fighting over long-lost objects in Britain would be better employed on improving the deplorable state of cultural management at home.
The destruction by treasure seekers around Turkey’s major archaeological sites is enormous, yet the government doesn’t take practical steps to stop it. For starters, Ankara should enforce existing laws meant to protect antiquities. The government could also ban the sale or licensing of metal detectors to stop treasure hunters from looting the countryside around archaeological sites. Moreover, there is no proper archaeological inventory for the much-visited site of Cappadocia in Central Anatolia or even for Istanbul. The authorities should see that such inventories are completed to protect properties from avaricious developers.
Instead of wallowing in cultural nationalism, Turkey should be protecting its treasures and attracting all the foreign expertise it can. It does no good to refuse to lend an object to a foreign museum – particularly for an exhibition that is trying to further understanding between faiths.
Andrew Finkel has been a foreign correspondent in Istanbul for over 20 years, as well as a columnist for Turkish-language newspapers. He is the author of the book “Turkey: What Everyone Needs to Know.”
- Turkey plans to block loans to British Museum over artefact dispute : April 23, 2012
- Turkey wants a dialogue with France over disputed antiquities in Louvre : November 23, 2012
- Turkey asks British Museum to return the Samsat Stele : April 10, 2012
- Turkey advertises the fact that some tiles in Agia Sophia are copies with originals in other museums abroad : January 2, 2013
- Turkey versus the Louvre – Ankara’s artefact restitution attempts continue : February 27, 2013
- Turkey gets tough on disputed cultural treasures in foreign museums : May 18, 2012
- Louvre denies accusations that exhibited tiles were stolen from Turkish mosque : November 7, 2012
- Turkey lobbies foreign museums for return of artefacts : September 12, 2012