More Bad Press for Turkey

I am indebted to friends abroad who often send me articles from newspapers in the US, the UK and elsewhere. Despite the wonders of the Internet, it’s easy to lose touch with the Western Hemisphere, and especially how its media perceive their problematic Turkish neighbour.
Exhibition at the British Museum
A recent article I received deals with a squabble that apparently arose between the Turkish Government and officials at the British Museum who recently hosted an exhibition entitled ‘Hajj: Journey to the Heart of Islam.’ It seems the dispute arose over a First Century CE stele with a sculpted depiction of King Antiochus I Epiphanes in the British Museum collection. The Turkish Ministry of Culture claims that the stele was illegally exported, and wants it returned. To make the point, they refused to authorize the loan of a royal camel saddle for the Hajj exhibition. In fact, more than that, they are actually targeting other museums in Europe and the United States who, they claim, have priceless artifacts that should be returned to Turkey.
Followers of this blog will know that I have written on this issue on two previous occasions, and I don’t intend to go down the same road again. I have written at some length on the subject of which European cities one should visit to see treasures from Pergamum, Ephesus, Constantinople, Troy and other cities of the ancient world located within the boundaries of the modern Republic of Turkey. More recently, I wrote about one noteworthy instance where a museum in Berlin had seen fit to return a disputed Hittite sphinx.
What interested me about this particular article, more than its subject matter, was its tone, which was highly critical of Turkey, its government and its people – in fact vituperative and spiteful might be better words to use than ‘critical’. In the first place, the writer says that the Turkish government’s action re the veto is a mistake. Well, ok, he is entitled to his opinion. However, he goes on to criticize the budget allocation to tourism marketing of Turkey, comparing it to ‘a sultan’s ransom’ – as if there is any connection between the two issues, and sultans have any relevance to the modern Republic of Turkey.
The writer then goes on to suggest that the Turkish government should give up trying to repatriate ‘long-lost’ treasures, and instead focus on more careful management of what remains within their borders. No doubt museums in the West holding disputed classical treasures would be very happy if the issue could be so easily swept under the rug – but that is unlikely to happen. In a final snide swipe, the writer accuses Turks of ‘wallowing in cultural nationalism’ in their attempts to have stolen artifacts returned.
I can’t say whether Turks in general, are more prone to cultural nationalism than people of other nations, not having done the exhaustive research that, one assumes, lies behind this generalization.  I can say that they may have more reason than most to be proud of the richness and diversity of their culture. However, this diatribe in the New York Times did prompt me to check out the writer, a certain Andrew Finkel. The International Herald Tribune gives the following brief resumé: 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.”’
Perhaps one thing his readers need to know about Mr Finkel is that, shortly before this article appeared, the Turkish newspaper, Today’s Zaman, which had been publishing his column for more than four years, terminated his employment. Again, I can’t say conclusively that Mr Finkel’s perception of Turkey has been adversely affected by this experience, but it is possible. Publicity for his recent book about Turkey quotes Joost Lagendijk, former joint chairman of the Turkey-EU Parliamentarians’ delegation and Senior Advisor at the Istanbul Policy Center of Sabanci University as saying: “There are only a few people in Turkey who can combine the critical eye of the outsider with the compassion of the insider. Finkel is one of them.”  I have to say, ‘compassion’ is not a word I would use to describe that gentleman’s recent writings about a country which seems, on the whole, to have treated him well. Still, the question remains, does he have a valid point?

First, let it be said that Mr Finkel does concede Turkey’s right ‘to protect its own archaeological heritage from thieves’, and its ‘obligation to recover objects smuggled abroad.’ However, he rather undermines this concession by going on to emphasise what he calls ‘the deplorable state of cultural management at home’ and ‘the destruction by treasure seekers around Turkey’s major archaeological sites.’ Leaving aside the question of whether words such as ‘wallowing’, ‘deplorable’ and ‘destruction’ can be considered ‘compassionate’, or even neutral, I would like to consider the matter of Turkey’s ‘cultural management.’
Recently I had cause to visit the head office of the Social Welfare Department (SGK) in the area of Istanbul known as Unkapanı. It lies on the main thoroughfare, Atatürk Boulevard, which runs from Yenikapı, or Newgate, on the Marmara Sea walls built by the Roman Emperor Theodosius, passing under the 4th century aqueduct of the Emperor Valens, before crossing the Golden Horn to the old (but newer) European quarter of Galata/Pera. On the hill above the SGK office, major restoration work is being carried out on the Pantokrator Monastery, known to Turks as Molla Zeyrek Mosque. Ah, those Turks! I hear you say. Is nothing sacred? The monastery became a mosque, however, when Sultan Mehmet II conquered Constantinople, which means its history as a mosque began about fifty years before St Peters Basilica in Rome was even built! Still, to be fair, it was a Christian monastery before that, constructed by order of the Byzantine Emperor Ioannis Komnenos in the early 12th century. But again, if my calculations are correct, its life as a Muslim place of worship is at least two hundred years longer than its Christian period.
Anyway, it is being restored, and for sure, not before time. I can’t see the local community being able to fill its vast spaces on the holiest of Islamic Fridays, so my hope is that at least part of the complex will be set aside as a museum. How much the bill will be for restoration is another question. Three-year renovations of the Süleymaniye Mosque complex nearby are said to have cost $US15 million  – and that building was half the age and in reasonable order to begin with.
A short distance down the boulevard from the SGK office stands what looks like a retaining wall of some antiquity. In fact, it is what remains of a Roman cistern, originally built to supply water to the baths and fountains of Constantinople. In any other city in the world, such an edifice would probably be housed inside a glass dome, and be one of the tourist highlights. In Istanbul, it is one of dozens of such cisterns, some of which have been restored, many of which remain to be discovered.
These few examples serve to draw attention to the unique and problematic nature of the archeological wealth of Istanbul. In the first place, the ancient city of Constantinople was surrounded by walls with a circumference of some twenty-two kilometres, most of which have survived to the present day. Within these walls lies an area containing riches beyond the wildest dreams of a thousand archeologists. One reason these riches survive is that Istanbul did not see the kind of industrial and metropolitan development that took place in European cities from early modern times. Another reason is that, rather than destroying the holy places of the people they had conquered, as was done elsewhere, the Ottomans allowed those people to continue using them, or at worst, converted them to their own use.
We have been speaking here of Istanbul, the largest and best-known city of Turkey – a country with a land area larger than any in Europe except Russia. In the south east of this ancient land, near the city of Şanlıurfa, a remarkable discovery has recently been made. Archeologists working on the mound of Göbeklitepe have uncovered a complex of temples dating back twelve thousand years. The remarkable thing is that these temples predate by a considerable margin the oldest known towns, meaning that we have to totally revise our concept of the development of human civilisation. In the subsequent twelve millennia, more diverse civilisations have come and gone in this cradle of human development than in any other comparable area on the planet.
To get to the nub of what I want to say, within the boundaries of modern Turkey, there lies a potential museum of nearly eight hundred thousand square kilometres. We could move all the people out tomorrow, and let in all the archeologists from all the universities and museums of all the civilized nations of the Western world, and there would probably be enough excavation, restoration, preservation and museum-building work to last several lifetimes, and place severe strains on the budgets of their governments. Turkey is not a rich country, and I don’t think it deserves Andrew Finkel’s use of the word ‘deplorable’.
I’m not sure exactly what that gentleman means when he speaks of treasure-hunters causing ‘destruction’ around Turkey’s major archeological sites. I have visited a good number of these sites, and I have not seen anything on a scale to warrant the use of such an emotive word. What I would say, however, is that there are people in Turkey who are unfortunately only too happy to profit from the hunger of rich collectors and private museums in the West for relics of ancient civilizations. I once read an article in a local newspaper posing an interesting moral question on the problem of corruption: who is more guilty, the one who takes the bribe, or the one who offers it? One might rephrase the question a little, and ask, who is more guilty, the poor treasure-hunter, or the rich collector who pays a huge sum in a foreign auction house for a valuable artifact without caring whence it came and how?
So I have to say, I feel Andrew Finkel’s article was a tad unfair. However, in view of his recent sacking, perhaps we can understand an impulsive eruption of bile. We might, however, expect a rational person to consider that a newspaper with whose editorial policy he does not agree, is not necessarily representative of the nation as a whole. We might therefore expect him to regain some compassion for the country which has provided him with a livelihood for twenty years.
Somewhat surprisingly, then, it seems that Mr Finkel’s compassion for Turkey has been replaced by a new attitude of negativity and invective, beyond what might be accounted for by one unhappy experience with an employer. In a more recent article in the New York Times, entitled ‘No More Mr Nice Guy’ the compassionate gentleman lambasts the Turkish government for what he perceives as a failed foreign policy. Some people consider Andrew Finkel a competent journalist. His former employer at Today’s Zaman praised his work, even after the parting of their ways. I can’t say that I have read much of Finkel’s canon, but if these two articles are a fair sample, I would criticize him on the following grounds.  His writing is slanted, relies on emotive rhetoric rather than sequential logic, is heavy on assertions without substantiating evidence, and employs selective reporting techniques, logical non sequiturs and analogies of dubious validity to present his subject in a bad light.
Let’s take a look at his critique of Turkey’s foreign policy. He begins with an outline of Turkey’s on-going strategic significance, formerly as a bulwark for NATO and Western Europe against Soviet expansion, and more recently playing a role in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Balkans. There is just the hint of an implication that Turkey may not have received full credit for loyalty to its Western allies. The majority of the article, however, is taken up with a mocking attack on the ‘zero problems with neighbours’ policy pursued by Turkey’s Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu: Turkey would try to build bridges with neighbouring authoritarian states while encouraging them to reform. It sounds rather like the admissions policy for new members of the European Union, but it’s ok for the EU, apparently. Anyway, what about Finkel’s other criticisms?
  • The AK Party government sought to redefine Turkey’s international role. Well, why not? Maybe the West would like Turkey to be a puppet for them, but that nation has a proud history of independence. If the EU wants Turkey as a member, they have had fifty years to issue an invitation.
  • Davutoğlu’s ‘zero problems with neighbours’ policy failed. ‘Failed’ is a strong word. But Turkey has to live in this region, and they can’t afford to enter neighbouring countries with guns blazing. Building bridges sometimes works, and it’s almost always worth a try.
  • Turkey refused to allow the US to invade Iraq through its borders. Maybe some Americans and certainly a lot of Brits would be happier if their governments had been a little less gung-ho about invading Iraq.
  • Pandering to Turkish voters. Is this even worth answering? Who can come to power in a democratic country without doing a certain amount of this? Certainly not Presidential hopefuls in the USA. However, maybe US and other Western leaders actually prefer dealing with autocratic rulers who don’t have to answer to their people.
  • Washington saw Turkey’s policy as appeasement. In fact Turkey was among the first to support regime change in Egypt. The USA, for its part, had been funding Hosni Mubarak’s military for years.
  • Seemed to be supporting regimes that oppressed their people. I have dealt with the hypocrisy of Western powers on this issue in an earlier post. But to give another quick example, France and Italy were Muammar Ghaddafi’s main oil-buying customers before they decided to bomb him.
  • Relations with Israel deteriorated, Cyprus never improved, failed to make friends with Armenia. Again, I have dealt with these issues elsewhere, but, to summarise: Israel’s behaviour in Palestine and the West Bank is contrary to United Nations recommendations, and Israel’s intransigence is meeting with increasing international criticism, not just from Turkey. Similarly, the UN has made at least two proposals to settle the Cyprus issue which have been accepted by the Turkish side and rejected by the Greeks. As for Armenia, the state itself seems inclined to compromise with Turkey over the ‘genocide’ question. Most of the ongoing unpleasantness is generated by radical elements in the Armenian diaspora, encouraged by vote-seeking politicians such as France’s Sarkozy.
  • Turkey tried to negotiate a compromise over Iran’s nuclear programme. Some of us are seriously worried that ‘hawks’ in the US want to invade Iran next. Come on, guys! Haven’t you killed enough people in this part of the world? And why shouldn’t other countries have a nuclear programme? Why should Israel be the only local regime with nuclear capability?
  • Tried to work with Libya and Syria – but gave up. What can you do? Sometimes your best efforts at peace-making don’t work. Does that mean you shouldn’t try? Is there something wrong with being receptive to events and amending a policy that wasn’t bearing fruit?
  • ‘Zero problems’ is on its last legs and relations with the US have improved. I, for one, hope that the Turkish government continues to pursue an independent foreign policy, attempting to influence despotic neighbours with its successful blend of democracy and Islam. And I sincerely hope they don’t allow their territory to be used to facilitate an American invasion of Iran.
To be quite honest, I’m somewhat amazed that Andrew Finkel managed to work as a journalist in Turkey as long as he did, at least while drawing pay from the Turkish media. To paraphrase the thesis statement in his article about ancient treasures, Andrew Finkel and other Western journalists and politicians should focus on the hypocrisy of their governments and people at home, before criticising too harshly a nation doing its best to keep the torch of freedom and democracy burning in a part of the world where few others have achieved success.

One thought on “More Bad Press for Turkey

  1. I emailed these comments to a small group, but thought I'd post a version here:

    Alan, I appreciate learning more about the author of the article and it's caused me to look more closely as well. Here's an interesting link:

    I think there are many more articles as well. He sounds like a harsh critic no matter the subject.

    Your rebuttal is very well-taken. As someone who is responsible for an an encyclopedic museum art collection, I am mindful of many of the issues – looted art, caring for the art that is in one's collection, etc.

    You are absolutely correct that the resources required to do needed conservation, maintenance, upkeep are staggering. Even in my small museum collection we can never catch up with what needs to be done. The size and age of Turkey's 'collection' very nearly guarantees that it will always be a work in process. It is very easy for people to point fingers and say that it's not being done well enough, fast enough, thoroughly enough. It happens to me all the time!

    The other major issue to my way of thinking, how do we 'share' cultural heritage, is extraordinarily complex and tied up with history and politics and colonialism and other monumental trends/events that cannot be easily undone or reversed. There is no question that Western museums and universities helped themselves to cultural treasures in the 19th and 20th centuries (a trend that has been going on since the first person made the first carving and it was stolen by a warring tribe) and there needs to be an internationally-agreed upon system for resolving these concerns. UNESCO treaties have gone a long way in this direction, and my museum, for example, abides by those directives and also by the guidelines of the American Association of Museums and the Association of Art Museum Directors in situations as part of our acquisition and deaccession process. Not everyone may agree about the interpretation of these directives; there is much that is ambiguous about the circumstances of work having been taken from a country and also then being taken in to a museum collection. James Cuno has written very extensively and eloquently on this in “Who Owns Antiquity”.

    Thanks for a lively article. When I forward these writings to you, please know that I do it in the spirit of inquiry, and always look forward to becoming better informed by your responses.


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