Museum Wars: Ankara Demands Artifacts from Berlin
German museums and archaeologists fear that Turkey is punishing them for not repatriating contested artifacts. In a SPIEGEL interview, Turkish Culture Minister Ömer Çelik explains why Turkey is demanding both the artifacts and an apology.
A dispute is heating up between Turkey and Western countries, with ancient artifacts at stake. On one side, Ankara vehemently insists museums, including German ones, should return valuable archaeological treasures that Turkey alleges are wrongly in their possession. German archaeologists, on the other hand, refuse categorically to comply, saying the disputed items entered German collections legally, most of them over a century ago.
Speaking with SPIEGEL last year, Hermann Parzinger, president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, which oversees the state-owned museums in Berlin, harshly criticized the Turkish government. "Much is being lost because Turkey doesn't have an established system for preserving historical artifacts, as Germany does," Parzinger said. He also accused Ankara of increasing arrogance, saying that cultural heritage "is the last thing they think about."
Parzinger's comments provoked outrage in Turkey. "His message is: 'They have no idea what they're doing and don't take care of things, so we'll take care of them instead for the sake of the common good,'" raged the Turkish daily Hürriyet.
Now Turkish Culture and Tourism Minister Ömer Çelik, 44, responds in a SPIEGEL interview to Parzinger's criticism. Çelik took office in January and is seen as a close confidant of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), the country's conservative, Islamic governing party. Just as his predecessor did, Çelik is calling for the return of archaeological artifacts originating in Turkey. The objects would find a new home in Ankara's Museum of the Civilizations. Planned as the world's largest museum building, this facility is to open its doors in 2023, on the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Turkish state.
SPIEGEL: Minister Çelik, during your recent trip to Berlin, you visited the Pergamon Altar, one of the main attractions at the city's Museum Island. Do you believe the altar belongs here in Berlin or in Turkey, where it was discovered by German archaeologist Carl Humann in the 19th century?
Çelik: The Pergamon Altar is an important piece of our global cultural heritage. As a matter of principle, it's preferable that cultural artifacts be displayed in the place from which they come. International laws concerning the preservation of such cultural treasures stipulate as much.
SPIEGEL: In other words, you believe it should be returned to Turkey?
Çelik: The excavations in Pergamon were carried out by German archaeologists, with whom we have maintained a very close relationship for about 140 years. This particular artifact was turned over to German authorities, with the necessary permits, during the time of the Ottoman Empire. We are not asking for the return of such artifacts. However, we do want to work, through negotiations and simple persuasion, to bring back items that left Turkey without permits and therefore illegally.
SPIEGEL: Roughly how many objects in Berlin would this affect?
Çelik: There are five pieces we are trying to obtain through official channels. These include the sarcophagus from the tomb of Haci Ibrahim Veli, a fisherman statue from Aphrodisias and the prayer niche from the Beyhekim Mosque in Konya. We are also asking for the return of a window frame from the same mosque, and of Iznik tiles from the Piyale Pasha Mosque in Istanbul.
SPIEGEL: The talk in Berlin had only been of three items. And Hermann Parzinger, the president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, considers your claims baseless. He also points out that he voluntarily returned the Sphinx of Hattusa to you
Çelik: ... our people have found documents in Ottoman archives which show that we have a claim to the objects I named.
SPIEGEL: Parzinger accuses you of breaking your promise to loan pieces to Berlin museums in exchange. He describes Turkey's conduct as "sometimes very nearly chauvinistic."
Çelik: There's one thing I'd like to express very clearly, and that is that we expect an apology from Mr. Parzinger for his use of the term "chauvinistic." I am a political scientist and quite familiar with the meaning of the word. The use of this term is unacceptable.
SPIEGEL: Germany has a great desire to work together with Turkey, such as in putting on exhibitions. Is there no common ground where you can meet?
Çelik: We are glad to offer items on loan. For example, we wanted to loan a portrait head of Alexander the Great to a German museum for an exhibition. That fell through because the obligatory insurance sum was too high for the exhibition's organizers. We most certainly believe in win-win solutions when it comes to cooperating over cultural artifacts. Still, on the issue of restitution, we expect the other party to fulfill its obligations.
SPIEGEL: Germany doesn't see any obligation here.
Çelik: We are only asking for what is rightfully ours. In the Ottoman Empire, the export of artifacts was forbidden by law from 1884 to 1906. Only the sultan was allowed to circumvent this law. The five artifacts I've named, which are now in Berlin, were without a doubt exported from Turkey illegally, which is why we are now asking for their return.
SPIEGEL: Can that really be determined so definitively? The relevant documentation is not always still available. And Berlin is quite certain that the prayer niche from Konya arrived on German soil legally.
Çelik: In this case, it's important to ask according to what logic a 13th-century prayer niche from central Anatolia is being displayed in Berlin. A prayer niche is not just an archaeological object to be admired. It also has religious significance and is the most important architectural component of a mosque, the house of prayer for Muslims. Not even a sultan had the authority to give such a thing as a gift or as part of a treaty. Why, then, should a prayer niche be exhibited here in Berlin? It is as if we put the apse of the Berlin Cathedral on display in the Istanbul Archaeological Museum. It's always important to understand the other party's perspective.
SPIEGEL: This conflict over restitution is having a broader effect. Leading archaeologists now worry you may revoke the excavation permits for German archaeologists working in Turkey.
Çelik: That is not the case. In fact, I would like to strengthen our collaboration with German archaeologists. In order to do so, however, certain conditions must of course be fulfilled.
SPIEGEL: And what are those?
Çelik: Take a look at the excavations Japanese archaeologists are conducting in Kaman-Kalehöyük, around 100 kilometers (60 miles) southeast of Ankara. The Japanese have been active there for over 25 years, and we will continue to grant them permits for another 20 or 30 years. Their work is exemplary. After they complete an excavation, they restore the ruins they have found and re-establish an intact environment at the excavation site.
SPIEGEL: And the Germans don't?
Çelik: I don't want to make generalizations, because some German teams do conduct their work with great care. But there are also many that simply leave sites however they happen to look at the end of an excavation, disorderly and without having been restored in any way -- a deserted landscape. Such an approach leaves us thinking: This is not sensitive treatment of valuable cultural artifacts.
SPIEGEL: Those are serious accusations.
Çelik: In 2010, in Göbekli Tepe, a prehistoric archaeological site in southeastern Anatolia, an 11,500-year-old statue was stolen. For the duration of an excavation, the head of the excavation team is responsible for the security of the site and of the artifacts found there. In this case, the person in charge was a German.
Çelik: I'm not saying the head of the excavation team stole the statue, simply that he didn't take the necessary security measures. Germany paid a fine for what happened. At the time, we did consider ending that excavation, but we decided to give the Germans a second chance. If we had harbored prejudices against German archaeologists, we would have had sufficient grounds for halting the excavation.
- Part 1: Ankara Demands Artifacts from Berlin
- Part 2: "Accusations of Chauvinism"
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