Tomb Robbers and Cultural Linguistics

Do different languages confer different personalities? The question was raised in an articleI chanced upon the other day. The magazine was The Economist, and I confess it’s not part of my regular reading fare. Nevertheless, the piece struck a chord with me because I am pretty sure I become a different person in certain subtle ways when I speak Turkish.
It’s not just that there is a whole range of set phrases in Turkish you can trot out in almost every imaginable social situation, though that’s part of it: when someone cooks you a meal, emerges from the shower or hairdresser, is working when you are not; when a friend’s relative has passed away, someone does you a good turn or you want to admire a new baby, there’s a neat little ready-made phrase you can offer. On my annual trips downunder to see family, I often feel tongue-tied in these situations.
But there is more to it than that. Turks, in fact, have a saying: “Bir lisan, bir insan; iki lisan, iki insan” . . . “One language, one person; two languages, two people”. As an example, Turkish has no word for frustration, that “feeling of distress and annoyance resulting from an inability to change or achieve something”[1]. What Turkish does have (and English does not) is a marvellous verb halletmek, meaning to find a solution for a problem, where the solution may not necessarily be one hundred percent ethical or even legal, as in Hallederiz, abi – We’ll sort it out, mate.
You can understand the cultural need for such a word from the existence of another delightful verb oyalamak, meaning to put someone off with trumped-up excuses. This activity is especially found in offices or workplaces where someone in a position of responsibility doesn’t actually want to do something, or accept responsibility for something that you quite reasonably thought he or she should do or accept responsibility for. A foreigner like myself will probably feel some frustration in this situation, whereas a Turk will find a way to halletmek the matter.
Turkey’s Minister of Culture inspecting sarcophagus
(Click for a slideshow)
One of my regular sources of news and information is the Turkish daily Hürriyet. Last weekend a small item announced the opening of an unusual exhibitionin the south Aegean town of Milas: İbretlik Sergi. Well, sergi is Turkish for exhibition, no problem with that – but I had to look up the other word, and I now know it means a lesson learned the hard way, in the school of hard knocks, as our old Grammar School headmaster Henry Cooper used to say. No single word for that in English!
The exhibition apparently features tools employed by a gang police caught in the act of grave robbing. OK, a little ghoulish interest there, perhaps, but hard to see crowds flocking in, you may think – but listen up. The grave in question is believed to be the last resting place of Hekatomnos, King of Caria in the 4th century BCE, and father of the better known Mausolus, whose monumental burial place in nearby Halicarnassus (Bodrum) was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
The Carians, it seems, are something of a historical mystery. Their civilisation existed in southwest Anatolia long before Greek-speaking peoples arrived in the first millennium BCE. There is some relationship with the Leleges, indigenous inhabitants of Anatolia, and both spoke a now extinct Indo-European language related to Hittite. The Carian kingdom was incorporated into the Persian Empire in 545 BCE but our man Hekatomnos apparently managed to achieve a measure of independence for his people. His capital was Mylasa, but other important cities were Knidos, Myndos and Latmos, all of which sites can be seen by the visitor to modern Turkey. In the mountains above present-day Milas archeologists are working on the site of a temple to Zeus Labraundos, a cult said to have been founded by Hekatomnus. Its symbol is labrys, a double-edged axe symbolising creation and said to be the origin of the word labyrinth.
Anyway, it seems that the Milas tomb raiders had rented a property adjacent to the site and, over a period of time, dug two tunnels six and eight metres long into the crypt. According to reports, the gentlemen involved are locals but clearly they knew what they were looking for, knew exactly where to look, and had some serious financial backing. The equipment they had at their disposal is not what would normally be found in a Turkish villager’s toolkit given that they had to drill through a thick marble wall to enter the burial space.
Turkey’s Minister of Culture, Ertuğrul Günay announced the discovery of the robbery back in 2010, and said at the time it was obvious that artifacts and treasures had already been removed, presumably for sale on the lucrative antiquities black market. Fortunately the gang was apprehended before they had managed to make off with the large elaborately carved sarcophagus, or the coloured frescoes decorating the interior walls. The Archeological Institute of America listed the Milas tomb as one of the top ten discoveries of 2010, so it is a little disappointing, surprising even, that thieves got to it first.
Of course the entire area of Turkey is one vast actual and potential archeological dig, containing continuous layers of civilisation dating back at least ten thousand years, so it is inevitable that some wonderful new site will on occasion be accidentally discovered by a farmer working in his field or a tourist out for a stroll. However, it is evident that this tomb was not such a chance find. In April last year the government of Turkey made an official application to have UNESCO add it to that organisation’s list of important historical sites. In their submission, the writers note that the mausoleum of Hekatomnos was discovered by a German scholar Jacob Spon back in 1675. Admittedly the burial chamber the thieves were working in was ten metres underground, but you would think that, in the intervening 325 years someone might have thought it worthwhile to fossick around a little below the surface.
Well, clearly someone finally did. Ten locals were netted in the police raid back in 2010, and five of them have been subsequently charged with offences under Turkey’s strict laws relating to the theft and smuggling of antiquities. However, Mr Günay is convinced, probably correctly, that those taken into custody were not working alone, and he has vowed to investigate the likelihood that they were in the pay of a person or persons outside the country who were providing scientific and financial backing.
I have heard it offered as an excuse for the retention of priceless ancient treasures in offshore museums that Turkey is unable to look after its history and allows its own people to destroy relics of ancient civilisations. It’ll be an interesting twist if wealthy foreign backers are proved to have been employing local labour to do their acquisitive dirty work for them. I have found Turkish people generally to be honest and tolerant, particularly in their dealings with foreigners. I will be sad if the hard lesson they learn from events like this results in a tougher attitude towards us.


[1] According to my Apple desktop dictionary
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