Dr Edhem Eldem is a renowned Turkish historian who teaches at the Department of History at Boğaziçi University in Istanbul. In 2011-2012 he was a fellow at The Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin. His research focus lies on the late Ottoman social and economic history, intellectual biographies and the history of archaeology. A few weeks ago he published an article in the German Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on the present situation for archaeologists in Turkey. We asked Dr Edhem Eldem some further questions on this topic.
"A tendency to use power over excavators as a means of retaliation"
L.I.S.A.: Dr. Eldem, a few weeks ago you have published an article in the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. The topic: politicians – in this case in Turkey – misuse treasures of antiquity for their own benefit, with serious consequences for the academic discipline Archaeology and for archaeologists. You refer especially to foreign, non-turkish campaigns. What kind of consequences do you mean? What is the real problem?
Dr. Eldem: Behind my desire to write this article were two ‘burning’ issues concerning archaeology and politics in Turkey. First, a marked tendency of the government to take away excavation permits from foreign teams or, at least, to threaten to do so; second, a systematic refusal, again by the government, to lend objects to museums holding, or said to be holding, objects that had been illegally taken from the Turkish territory. At first glance, these two issues do not need to be necessarily taken as a form of abuse on behalf of the government. After all, ever since Ottoman times, the government has been legally granted the authority to deliver permits to excavators, foreign and domestic alike; in that sense, it is within the government’s power and duties to see to it that these permits are delivered properly and that their legal and scientific requirements are properly met. Moreover, it is also true that there is an impressive number of objects and artifacts that have been removed from Ottoman, and then Turkish, soil as a result of clandestine digs and outright smuggling. From this perspective, too, it falls within the prerogatives and duties of the government to do its best to prevent such occurrences in the future and to obtain restitution for those objects that have been traced to private and public collections abroad.
However, my objection is to the fact that the present situation does not reflect such an idealized situation, but rather denotes a tendency of politics, ideology, populism, and economic opportunism to dominate the whole question. In short, I would stress the following points:
1. The government shows a tendency to use its power over excavators as a means of leverage and retaliation, in other words as a stick, rather than a carrot. The French have lost two sites on grounds of insufficient publication; the Germans have lost Aizanoi for less clear reasons. In 2011, the government threatened the Germans with freezing all their excavations unless one of the Hattusa sphinxes were returned. The sphinx was returned and the crisis avoided, but then the Germans almost lost Göbeklitepe on grounds that a recently discovered statue was stolen. In terms of cultural exchanges, loans promised to the Victoria and Albert, Metropolitan, and British Museums were cancelled at the last minute, on grounds that these institutions held objects illegally removed from Turkey in their collections. All these instances reveal a tendency to favor conflict over negotiation in finding a solution to what may well be legitimate concerns, but need to be handled in a more diplomatic, consensual, and scientifically transparent way.
2. One of the main problems is that the government’s action is essentially political and lacks any serious backing from the scientific community or any recognized scientific body. Taking away an excavation from a team that has been working on it for decades may well mean throwing away a very precious accumulation of knowledge and expertise that can hardly be replaced overnight. In the same way, an aggressive stand against a reputable museum is hardly an alternative to a more consensual and collaborative attitude that may lead to all forms of solutions, from permanent loans to outright retrocession.
3. One of my greatest concerns is that much of the government’s action is prompted by economic and ideological/political concerns. The latter are rather evident in the populist discourse that marks the way in which these issues are presented to the Turkish public and to (and by) the Turkish press. Systematic amalgamation between objects legally (but perhaps not ethically) taken away, such as the Pergamon altar, and objects smuggled out from the country feeds into the dominant feelings of xenophobia and paranoia that characterize popular perceptions of foreign archaeological presence in the country. This latent reference to foreign excavators as past and potential spoliators of the national heritage creates an easy and dangerous atmosphere of mistrust, which can be exploited by the government and bureaucracy to carry on a program of “nationalization” of excavation sites and archaeology at large. This is all the more disturbing when one considers that the dominant perception of archaeology is characterized, both at governmental and popular level, by a rather blatant lack of interest for anything that does not fall into the wider context of the Turkish and Islamic past of the country. This leaves one doubtful as to whether the concern expressed is really about archaeology or about whatever power and interests can be accrued from control over it. Indeed one finds it difficult to consider seriously the government’s alleged concerns for archaeology when compared to the almost total absence of references to the subjects of this discipline in educational programs and in the scientific endeavors undertaken by state- and government-sponsored agencies.
4. The economic concerns behind archaeology are evident: tourism generates enormous revenues, a substantial portion of which come from the major archaeological sites. This, in turn, shifts the concern from the invisible aspects of archaeology to its most visible and spectacular dimension. More importantly, the performance of archaeological missions tends to be evaluated more in terms of revenues generated than of actual scientific contribution. This encourages certain problematic issues such as anastylosis, and puts pressure on archaeologists to open up their digs to tourism as rapidly as possible. The other side of archaeology, the mostly invisible research that needs time, energy, and funds, is thus relegated to the background, sometimes even considered as a nuisance by pragmatic-minded bureaucrats and administrators. This perception obviously dovetails with the ideological biases exposed above: lacking any real presence in a historical construct based on Turkishness and Islam, archaeology thus acquires its legitimacy as an economic venture targeting foreign visitors. The fact that the government body in charge of archaeology is the Ministry of Culture and Tourism is telling enough of this ambiguous stand. Interestingly, the ‘economic’ factor is powerful enough to override preservationist concerns even with respect to the ‘ideologically legitimate’ field of Ottoman heritage. The obliviousness of local and central authorities to the threat of a new bridge over the Golden Horn that will destroy the silhouette of Istanbul is a case in point.
5. The major problem that looms over all the above is that the government can hardly be challenged in its action. Decisions are taken singlehandedly by the politicians concerned and by the bureaucracy of the ministry. Universities are rarely consulted, and most archaeologists are conscious of the fact that their own sites depend on the will and acceptance of the ministry. More importantly, this nationalist and xenophobic discourse is more often than not close to the heart of the general public, the press, and even academic circles. This makes it difficult to organize, as some archaeologist try, a public forum capable to discuss state and government policies in this regard. Unfortunately, contrary to most western examples, museums lack the academic, scientific, and financial autonomy that might give them a say in these processes. Quite the contrary, they are reduced to the role of glorified warehouses at the mercy of bureaucratic control and procedure and have to bear a heavy burden of exhibition, research, and monitoring without any corresponding access to decision making and active participation in the development of an archaeological policy.
"Continuity is a crucial component in archaeological campaigns"
L.I.S.A.: What is wrong with the idea of issuing more licences to national teams?
Dr. Eldem: Nothing, of course, and the past ten years have witnessed a remarkable rise in the number of ‘national’ teams actively involved in excavations, from 57 in 2002 to 123 in 2011. The problem is not that more permits should be issued to these teams, but rather that some should be entrusted with excavations taken away from ‘foreign’ teams. Continuity and stability is a crucial component in archaeological campaigns and the transfer from one team to another may have a destabilizing effect. To this day, there have been only few examples of such transfers, so the real problem is rather in the rhetoric that accompanies such operations, which implicitly suggests that foreigners are exploiting a position of advantage and not working enough, and that ‘national’ teams are likely to do more and better. This feeds into the nationalist discourse that underlies recent declarations by the minister; moreover it goes against what should really be a more international perception of archaeology. Indeed, ‘foreign’ excavations are de facto very international, and almost always include Turkish archaeologists among their staff, alongside a wide variety of other nationalities. The distinction between foreign and national should therefore be considered as outdated, and it would be hoped that the practice could by now transcend such artificial divides. However, the permits are issued in the name of individuals and institutions that are defined in terms of nationality, which makes it difficult to really defend the cause of an internationalization of the field. To give one concrete and rather telling example, the fact that the German Archaeological Institute officially depends on the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs makes it a bit difficult to convince the Turkish administration or public that this should be considered as a potentially international or transnational venture. There is a clear need on both sides to redefine roles and identities if they want to avoid a situation too reminiscent of the past century or so.
"Accepting the European construct of history"
L.I.S.A.: Together with Zainab Bahrani and Zeynep Celik you have compiled a new book: Scramble for the Past. A Story of Archaeology in the Ottoman Lands, 1753-1914, which deals with the European passion for the past, i.e. the first archaeological campaigns in the mid-18th century and then especially in the 19th century. The European empires, especially Britain, France and Germany, claimed to be the heir of antiquity, although most of these campaigns were carried out in the Ottoman domains. What did the Ottomans think of the European passion for the past? What was their own view of the ancient world and its heritage?
Dr. Eldem: If one considers that a systematic European quest for its ‘own’ heritage through archaeology started in the late eighteenth century, one can safely say that it took the Ottomans at least half a century to start thinking about a response to this, and about a century to start formulating it. This response took on an increasingly defensive and protectionist tone, culminating with the 1884 bylaw on antiquities that categorically forbade the export of any object from the Empire. Nevertheless, it is striking to see that while the Ottomans challenged European claims to the physical possession of these remains and made it a point to establish their own museum as an alternative to the ongoing spoliation, they were never able to formulate an alternative discourse with respect to the historic and civilizational meaning of this heritage, thus implicitly accepting the European construct of history, from which they were to a large extent excluded. In that sense, then, the Ottomans moved from an indifferent attitude in the early nineteenth century to a concerned at the end, but without really modifying their perception of this heritage as being foreign to them. Creating a museum and engaging in archaeological research and scholarship was therefore seen more as a necessary item on a ‘checklist’ of modernity and civilization than as a venture involving any aspect of their own heritage. This last aspect would appear much later, with the rise of Islamic archaeology and, during the early Republican period, with the Kemalist attempt to hijack Anatolian civilizations, sometimes inclusive of Greek/Ionian culture, in the invention of a new historicity of Turkey. This, however did not really gain widespread recognition and eventually, the Turkish public opinion settled for an almost exclusively Turkish/Islamic lineage of national history, with as its consequences, some of the problems stated above with respect to archaeological policy today.
"The argument of integrity of a monument speaks in favor of restitution"
L.I.S.A.: Nowadays, the successor states to the former Ottoman Empire claim to be the natural heir of antiquity, e.g. Turkey, Greece or Egypt. They demand the return of archaeological artefacts. Are they right to do so?
Dr. Eldem: The issue is complex, to say the least. The question of legality is crucial in determining the first level of claims. It is rather obvious that it is legitimate for any of these countries to claim back any object that can be proven to have been taken by illegal and clandestine means and, perhaps to a certain extent, those objects that cannot be proven to have been taken legally. Within this framework, as stated previously, the real issue is to manage these claims in a proper way and establish a collaborative atmosphere that is likely to produce better results than an aggressive and vindictive one.
The issue, however, becomes much more intricate and ambiguous when it comes to objects or monuments that have been removed by legal means, but where the said legality tends to be questioned from the perspective of today’s moral and cultural values. The Parthenon marbles were removed by Lord Elgin on the basis of a permission granted by the Ottoman government; in that sense, their removal was legal, but that means very little to the Greek public today, given that the permission was not even given by a Greek authority. Moreover, the argument of the integrity of a monument certainly speaks in favor of a restitution of the friezes to the cultural and historic context from which they were extracted. We are thus faced with two conflicting values, one based on legality, the other on a form of morality and ethics. In this particular case, it is quite obvious that restitution cannot be imposed legally on the British Museum, but that does not exclude the possibility that political and moral pressure may, in the long run, force them into a form or another of restitution. The same may apply to the Pergamon altar in Berlin, but also to the Sidon sarcophagi in Istanbul, which ‘ethically’ might be said to belong to Lebanon. In short, then, it is quite clear that there is no ideal solution to what has been an very unequal sharing of a supposedly common heritage. Yet trying to redress these situations may well be as difficult and naïve as attempting to retrospectively correct the evils of imperialism carried out throughout the past two centuries or so. While I do not exclude reasonable efforts to arrive at a more equitable situation through consensual means, I would, for the moment, stress the importance of osman Hamdi Bey’s remarks in a letter to a European archaeologist in 1887: “I am happy to see that my government is starting to appreciate antiquities. Better late than never; moreover, my consolation is that despite all the marvels and archaeological treasures that all of you, British, French and Germans, have taken away from us, there still is under my country’s soil enough material to enrich its own museum. And as long as I live, I will do my best to prevent this exploitation; and those who tell me that this would be a loss for science are wrong, and they want to induce us into error. For I shall never prevent excavations made for the good of science; what counts is that the objects found be collected in a place accessible to European scientists, which should satisfy the needs of science; and frankly Constantinople is as accessible as London, Berlin, or Paris. If excavators really only have in mind the interest of science, then they can excavate wherever they want, as long as they leave the objects with us.”