Where are the Ancient Treasures of Turkey?

Her çiçek bahçesinde
Her eser ülkesinde güzeldir
Every flower is beautiful in its own garden
Every work of art in its own country
(A plaque on the wall of the Selçuk Museum, Turkey)
Another tourist season is beginning. Chartered planefuls of Brits, Russians, Germans, descend again on the resorts of Turkey: Kuşadası, Bodrum, Alanya . . . regale themselves with Efes Pilsen and breakfasts of bacon and eggs as they toast themselves fashionable shades of pink in the unaccustomed heat of the Mediterranean and Aegean sun. Increasing numbers of them, lured by the foregoing pleasures, and the relatively affordable property prices, purchase a slice of local real estate and return to the same villa year after year, or send their neighbours from back home.
For many foreign visitors, this is Turkey. But of course, there are other Turkeys, and many other reasons for visitors to come, no less in the 21st century than in the 13th. For Christians there are places of pilgrimage in this nursery of early Christianity: the great church of St Sophia, the house of the Virgin Mary at Ephesus, St Peter’s first church in ancient Antioch (modern Antakya) to name only three.  For students of history, and those with a passing interest, this is one of the cradles of civilisation, its ancient land buried in layers of more long-gone peoples and empires than probably any other place on Earth: Hittite, Lydian, Lycian, Ionian, Roman, Seljuk . . .
So we visit the museums, the unearthed and reconstructed sites of ancient cities, and, if we have a modicum of imagination, we guess that even the grains of sand, on which we arrange our white plastic şezlong, are the eroded remains of palaces and bath houses, monuments and triumphal fountains of once-great empires. Perhaps, in the raptures of such imaginings, we pick up a fragment of white marble lapped by the waves at our feet, and secrete it in our pack to use as a paper-weight in memory of our travels. What harm in that? Who could object?
I guess it’s a question of scale. There must surely be a continuum of theft, from the accidental accumulation of clay or sand on the soles of my shoes accompanying me back home after my holiday – to the meticulously planned heist which removes a priceless Van Gogh or Monet from the wall of the Müsee d’Orsay to grace someone’s private art collection.
I paid another visit to the museum at Selçuk last summer.  It’s a small museum, but important in that the town of Selçuk is, of course, a popular base for exploring the ruins of the city of Ephesus, once capital of the ancient Aegean region of Asia Minor, and home to the early church to which St Paul addressed one of his famous epistles.
Section of the Parthian monument – see it in Vienna

Among the important archeological finds at Ephesus is the Parthian monument. The Parthians were a  warlike race whose territory lay at the Eastern border of the Roman Empire. There were ongoing wars between the Romans and the Parthians involving victories on either side, but the Romans never succeeded in subduing them. The monument commemorated a victorious campaign undertaken by Roman forces against the Parthians during the reign of the Emperor Trajan in 116 AD, and was decorated with reliefs showing scenes from the wars. Some of the reliefs that once adorned the monument are displayed in the Selçuk Museum – the rest are, apparently, in the Ephesus Museum in Vienna. Nice for the Viennese!

If this were a single event in which the priceless remains of an ancient civilisation had been removed from their original site to a museum abroad it would be serious enough. A strong case might be made for their return to Turkey. It is, however, just one instance of countless cases where ancient flowers have been removed from their natural garden to some public museum or private collection in another country. And, as we all know, there is safety in numbers, Why should I return my reliefs until they return their caryatids?
Just a short stroll down the road from the marble columns and friezes of Ephesus is the site of the fabled Temple of Artemis. Of course, as an important goddess in the Greek pantheon, Artemis had more than one temple built in her honour. But this was THE Temple of Artemis, one of the reasons for the fame of the city of Ephesus, and one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Sadly, visitors today will be disappointed if they expect to see more than orderly rows of foundation stones and a half-hearted reconstruction of an ancient column. Those from London especially could have saved themselves the airfare to Turkey, when a tube ride to Russell Square and a short walk to the British Museum would have enabled them to see more of the temple than can be seen in situ.
And for those Brits who read this column in time to save on the plane ticket, while you’re at the British Museum, check out the statues and other remains from the Mausoleum of Hallicarnassus, another of those legendary Seven Wonders. If you were expecting to see much of it during breaks away from the Bodrum nightclubs, you’d be better off ordering another Efes Pilsen.
Still, we can’t blame only the Brits. I’ve already mentioned the Viennese, and in fact it was crusading Christian knights who originally dismantled most of the fabulous mausoleum to build their castle defending the harbour at Bodrum. U.S. presidents would do well to check their history books before siding too readily with those medieval crusaders. On one of their sacred outings in 1204, they stopped off on their way to fight the Muslims in the Holy Land, and sacked the city of Constantinople. Some sources tell us that the sacking of the city and raping of the (Christian) inhabitants went on for three days, during Easter week! Sure the city was conquered by the Muslim Ottomans in 1453, but by then most of the riches of the St Sophia cathedral and nearby imperial statuary had already been shipped off to Venice and Florence, where they can, so I’m told by reliable sources, be seen today.
But in spite of all this, many of us still go to Turkey, and not just for the beaches. Of course, it is still a rich storehouse of remains of ancient cultures. What about Troy? You’ve seen the movie, and you know the Greeks sailed across the Aegean to recapture the beautiful Helen. Again, sadly, visitors to Troy are likely to be disappointed. A certain Heinrich Schliemann,19th century German archeologist, and his wife, who apparently rejoiced in the delightfully classical name of Sophia Engastromenos, with the connivance of a corrupt Ottoman official, spirited away the legendary treasures of Troy.
Never mind, you may think. Anyway, I was going to Berlin to check out the Pergamon Museum, which, as you know, was purpose-built to exhibit the altars, statues and friezes taken from the site of ancient Pergamon, near the town of Bergama in modern Turkey. I can kill two birds with the Berlin stone, you may think. But again, you will be disappointed. The Trojan treasures apparently disppeared from Berlin in 1945, and their whereabouts remained a mystery until 1993, when the Pushkin Museum in Moscow announced that they were, in fact, in safe-keeping, stored in their basement, and would shortly go on display. Can making off with already previously made-off-with artifacts be considered a crime? Working on the principle of two negatives making a positive, one might plead not.
Well, I could go on and tell you more about the whereabouts of the treasures of ancient Turkey. I’ve barely touched on the riches of Constantinople and Pergamon, now securely housed elsewhere, and I haven’t even mentioned Sardis, a once grand city at the western end of the trade route linking Mesopotamia to the Aegean region, capital of the proverbial Lydian King Croesus – but I think you get the picture. Luckily for Turkey and the rest of us who love to travel, the best efforts of treasure-hunters and pillagers from the West have as yet been unable to denude Turkey of the wealth of ancient cultures to be found within its borders. Drop a spade into the ground anywhere in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, and the chances are you’ll uncover something of deep historical significance. It’s certainly worth a visit – and not just to Kuşadası!

9 thoughts on “Where are the Ancient Treasures of Turkey?

  1. Hi Alan, what an interesting and witty post! Alex and I recently watched a documentary called “Rape of Europa” chronicling how the Nazis stole art treasures across Europe during WWII. It is interesting to see that the Russians retaliated in 1945.

    Check out the film if you can find it. I believe there is also a book by the same title. This post would make the beginnings of a much better documentary though. Maybe we could get the ministry of culture on board. 🙂

  2. Hi Perin – Thanks for the feedback. I checked out that film and book – a bit expensive to buy through Amazon. Maybe I’ll find another source. Good suggestion about the documentary! Maybe they’d go for it.

  3. Yes – interesting that they call those things the 'Elgin Marbles' instead of 'those priceless sculptures one our aristocratic ancestors nicked from the Parthenon in Athens' – but I guess the other name is shorter 🙂

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