On Artifact Smuggling, Religious Tolerance and the Winter Olympics

History, as I have remarked before, is a fascinating subject, rather less certain in its account of events than ordinary citizens may be generally aware. One of the reasons for starting this blog was my discovery, after coming to live in Turkey, that the version of affairs in this part of the world that I had grown up with did not always accord with the way people around here viewed them.

Another example of this came to my attention as I paid my annual visit to the Aegean town of Selçuk to visit two English friends. Selçuk has long been a popular base for tourists visiting the sites of cities and temples important in the ancient classical world: Ephesus, Miletos, Didyma, Priene and more. Recently it seems to have become increasingly popular with Christians flocking to see the actual locations of events seminal to the establishment of their own religion.

In spite of their reputation in the Western world, Muslims have never had major objections to Christians practising that religion. Arabs and Turks may have conquered and occupied the ‘Holy Lands’ for around 1,200 years, but they were fairly tolerant of pilgrims from Christendom wishing to visit. Unlike their Christian contemporaries, who couldn’t even get on with each other, Ottoman Sultans ruled a vast Empire that included all shades of Muslims and Christians, and offered sanctuary to Jews fleeing persecution by European overlords.

All the guidebooks will tell you that the population of modern Turkey is ninety-nine percent Muslim – yet ironically many locations mentioned in the Bible’s Old and New Testaments lie within its borders. Especially targeted by Catholic tourists is the house said to have been the residence of Mary, the mother of Jesus, who is believed to have come to the city of Ephesus after her son’s crucifixion. On the citadel hill of Selçuk itself are the remains of a huge basilica church, erected by the Roman/Byzantine/Greek Emperor Justinian in the 6th century over a grave supposed to be last resting place of Jesus’s favourite disciple John.

Description of John
and his basilica church
It is a credit to the people and government of Turkey that, not only do they respect these sites of enormous significance to Christian history, but they also allow foreign Christian organisations to restore and maintain them, and even display their own descriptions and commentaries. A text to be seen at the entrance to the basilica site is credited to the American Society of Ephesus, whose HQ, apparently, is in Lima, Ohio. The text provides details of the life of John, with Biblical references, and the history of the church itself. One sentence in particular caught my eye because some words had been scratched out. ‘Prior to the invasion by the Seldjuk Turks, the town of Selcuk was known as Ayasoluk, meaning ‘Devine Theologian’ in honor of St John.’ Leaving aside the minor errors in the sentence, the interesting thing for me was that beneath the scratched-out section was the hand-written, barely legible word ‘conquest’. It may be a small amendment, but is nonetheless indicative of a slightly different take on the history of Asia Minor – a part of the world that has had countless conquerors over many millennia.

Enlarged section of text
with deleted ‘invasion’
Well, one consequence of that Turkish invasion, or conquest, was perhaps that less value was given to the temples, churches and artwork of their predecessors, the Greeks, Romans, and Byzantines. There’s nothing unusual in that, of course. When the Roman Empire turned to Christianity, pagan temples were destroyed, mined for their stonework, or converted to new uses such as churches. Statues celebrating the naked human body had breasts and genitalia chiselled off. Interest in Classical civilisations and their artifacts is a relatively recent development in Western Europe, accelerating from the later years of the 18thcentury.

One result was a rising popularity in exploring the cities and temples of antiquity, and whisking away statuary and other relics to private collections. The building of public museums really began with the British Museum in 1759, and blossomed into the ‘Museum Age’ in the USA in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Consequently, in the 19th century the removal of ancient treasures became more organised, professional, and at least more for the benefit of a wider public. There is much debate these days on the subject of archeological finds displayed in museums around the world. However, it was only in the early years of the 20th century that stricter controls were placed on the removal of ancient artifacts, so it is difficult to make a strong case for the return of pieces taken prior to that. Nevertheless, there is an argument that major relics such as the so-called Elgin Marbles would be better displayed in Athens than their present location in London WC1.

During my brief stay in the town of Selçuk, I visited again the remains of the ancient city Magnesia-on-Meander. I was fortunate to have two knowledgeable guides in my friends Robert and Adrian, without whom much of the richness of the city would have remained unknown to me. The site is located some 30 km south of the better-known city of Ephesus and the two seem to have been of a similar size, which makes Magnesia very attractive to archeologists.

The first of these to begin serious exploration was a French team around 1840. They were particularly interested in a large temple dedicated to the goddess Artemis, a major deity in this part of the world, and worshipped in Magnesia as Artemis Leukophryene, she of the white eyebrows.  It was said that the goddess had appeared to the inhabitants of the city prior to construction of the temple, and the building was ingeniously designed so that, at certain times of the year, the light of a full moon would shine through an opening above the main entrance, progressively illuminating the statue of Artemis inside, recreating the epiphany to the wonderment of assembled worshippers.

The Magnesia Artemesion may not have been as grand as its counterpart in Ephesus, renowned as one of the Wonders of the Ancient World – but still it was one of the larger Hellenistic temples, built around 200 BCE, architecturally innovative and boasting a 175 metre-long frieze depicting the mythological war between the Greeks and the Amazons. A forty-metre section of the magnificent frieze subsequently found its way to the Louvre Museum in Paris where it may still be seen. A further twenty metres, along with many other finds were later relocated to the Pergamon Museum in Berlin after a German team of archeologists carried out excavations in the 1890s.

Scylla and the sailors –
minus stolen heads

Since 1984, archeologists from Ankara University have been working at the Magnesia site. With Turkish nationals overseeing the dig, and international agreements in place to outlaw the smuggling of antiquities, you might think that the treasures of Turkey would be safe at last – but you would be wrong. In 1989 excavations began uncovering a building identified as the Market Basilica, and the most remarkable find was an elaborately carved column capital featuring a scene from the ‘Odyssey’ of Homer in which two fearsome monsters, Charybdis and Scylla, combined forces to devour Odysseus’s crew of sailors. When discovered, the capital was in near-perfect condition, but almost immediately persons unknown, unable to make off with the entire 3.5 tonne marble block, contrived to break off the head and right arm of the monster Scylla which, we must assume, found their way to some private collection abroad.


A more famous case involves the unearthing of a stash of treasure known as the Lydian or Croesan Hoard. Croesus, proverbially one of the richest rulers in the ancient world, was king of the Kingdom of Lydia in the 6thcentury BCE, with his capital at Sardis in Western Turkey. The site was illegally excavated in the 1960s, a small hoard of buried treasure found, and the loot sold off, again, to persons unknown. Eventually some of the items turned up at an exhibition in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, resulting in an expensive six-year legal battle initiated by the Turkish Government.

After the court case, the artifacts were returned to Turkey where they went on display in the Uşak Archeological Museum, but in 2006 it was discovered, due to an anonymous tip-off, that some of the pieces were fake. An investigation revealed that a gang which included the Director of the Museum had been selling them off and substituting imitations in their place. Following negotiations with officials of a museum in Germany, a golden brooch in the shape of a winged seahorse, identified as part of the missing hoard, was returned to Turkey.

Just this week, another similar theft came to light. In 2000, excavations at the site of the ancient city of Akmonya, also in the Uşak Province, brought to light a floor mosaic from the classical Roman period depicting the goddess Tyche/Fortuna. Shortly after being unearthed, the mosaic, measuring 75 cm by 150 cm, was stolen from the site. As a result of investigations by Interpol and a special branch of the Turkish Police with responsibilities for artifact smuggling, a gang of eight persons were apprehended with the mosaic in their possession. After thirteen years they were in the process of spiriting the goddess out of the country – an indication of how valuable the trade is, how organised the criminals are, and how difficult it is to catch them.

To conclude this discussion, and to illustrate the extent to which millennia of civilisations overlap in this remarkable country, as well as to indicate how that history continues to influence, for better or worse, events of the present, I would like to take you back to the site of ancient Magnesia-on-Meander. Not far from the Artemesion temple is the shell of a medium-sized mosque dating from the Beylik period in the early 15thcentury – a kind of intervening age of smaller fiefdoms or principalities following the collapse of the Seljuk Turkish Empire, and before the rise of the Ottomans. Interestingly, however, the mosque is known by the name of Çerkez Musa, or Moses the Circassian. Apparently a group of refugees from the Caucasus area established a village here in the 18th century after fleeing from Russian imperial expansion – the beginnings of a programme of Russification and ethnic cleansing of Muslims that continued for two centuries and is still causing problems today.

One of these problems is centred on the city preparing to host the 2014 Winter Olympics. Sochi lies in the eastern Black Sea region beside the Caucasus Mountains, and word has it that it will host the most expensive games ever, winter or summer! The estimated price tag of $50 billion is said to have been substantially inflated by extensive bribery and corruption. Who can know? But one thing seems certain: the local and international Circassian community will be using the occasion to publicise their claims of atrocities, expulsion and genocidethat allegedly took place after the Russian military machine completed its conquest of the territory in 1864. I guess we can be equally confident that the Russian state will be doing its best to ensure that high volume celebrations of Olympic competition and togetherness drown out whatever message the Circassians try to convey to the outside world.

Which brings me back to our starting point – my constant rediscovering, in this quarter of the planet, that many of the historical ‘facts’I thought I knew, turn out, at the very least, to be highly debatable. There are two sides to almost every story, and in the interests of fair play, we should maintain an open mind to the possibility of alternative versions.

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