Photo Gallery: Disputed Treasures from Turkey

Foto: Jens Kalaene/ picture alliance / dpa

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.

This battle over antiquities is affecting relations between the two countries. High-ranking officials at major museums in Berlin say the Turkish government has broken agreements concerning cooperation between the countries and is deliberately making it harder for German archaeologists to work in Turkey. The latter are worried that, in 2013, they may for the first time be denied coveted excavation permits.

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.

SPIEGEL: That, too, is a serious accusation.

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.

"Accusations of Chauvinism"

SPIEGEL: In reality, the "environmental measures" you ask foreign excavation teams to take serve commercial interests, namely, providing Turkey with attractively restored ancient sites surrounded by convenient parking lots for tour buses.

Çelik: I am asking for no more than what is standard around the world. Compare the Japanese team's work with the German excavation site in Miletus. Work there has been going on for 114 years, and the site still doesn't even have proper drainage. There are extraordinarily important cultural artifacts there, items that are part of our global cultural heritage -- and they're submerged in water.

SPIEGEL: So, are you saying that the bill for all these measures -- which you call infrastructure, but which also benefit Turkey's tourism industry -- should be footed by German and other international excavation teams?

Çelik: That is actually stipulated by the law, which assigns this responsibility to the director of the excavation. Both landscaping and all relevant security measures are to be financed by the excavation team. The Japanese, and likewise the Belgians, manage this extremely well.

SPIEGEL: A team of French archaeologists, though, was forced to halt its excavations in Turkey. Is this related to the fact that the Louvre also refuses to return artifacts to your country?

Çelik: The French simply lacked the financial means to work in the appropriate way. They also lacked the sensitivity needed for such excavations.

SPIEGEL: Once again, is it not true that the French were stopped in part because they did not comply with your requests for the return of specific items?

Çelik: Such a connection has been repeatedly alleged, but it is simply not the case. We revoked the permit because the team was not meeting the necessary standards. We have done the same with other Turkish and foreign teams. That is the only reason.

SPIEGEL: Isn't the problem actually more extensive? Major museums around the world, including the British Museum in London, complain that Turkey is not very cooperative, for example, when it comes to loaning pieces for exhibitions.

Çelik: We expect a certain standard. We can't loan pieces to just anyone who asks.

SPIEGEL: The British Museum isn't just anyone.

Çelik: No, nor is the Pergamon Museum just anyone. We always look at how past collaborations with the same institutions went, whether the collaboration was successful or not. Collaborations only work when both sides make an honest effort.

SPIEGEL: And yet the impression we're left with is that your primary interest lies in thinning out antiquities collections around the world. You're asking for the return of thousands of objects, but you don't have a firm legal basis for doing so. Many of these artifacts have been in these museums for over 100 years.

Çelik: In his interview with SPIEGEL, Mr. Parzinger said that all the treasures the Soviets stole from Germany during and after World War II must be returned to Germany. We consider this legitimate. It is then also logical to say that everything that was exported from Turkey without a permit should be given back. We can't say that one thing is right but the other wrong.

SPIEGEL: The crucial factor is the way in which the items were obtained. For example, a legal purchase, even one conducted a long time ago, is very different from an army's looting. And then there's the pride and joy of your Istanbul Archaeological Museum, the 4th-century BC Alexander Sarcophagus, which archaeologists excavated in Lebanon in 1887. Are you willing to give up this treasure?

Çelik: That's a different matter. When the Alexander Sarcophagus was discovered, Lebanon was part of the Ottoman Empire, and the artifacts were brought to Istanbul on the basis of the laws in effect at the time. Returning to the objects mentioned before, Konya and Pergamon have never been German soil. We also see no legal or ethical differentiation between art looted by an army and art taken abroad without a permit.

SPIEGEL: How will things continue from here between you and the foreign archaeologists working in Turkey? This is, after all, a matter of excavating an important chapter in human history.

Çelik: I would like to cooperate even more, and even more closely, with German archaeologists. But it's important to realize that making accusations of chauvinism pushes these relations toward an impasse. Such accusations make it impossible to continue working together.

SPIEGEL: Minister Çelik, thank you for this interview.

Interview conducted by Marco Evers and Ulrike Knöfel; translated from the German by Ella Ornstein