Antique collectors funding terrorism

The proceeds would have gone to YPG/PYD


Sumerian gold jewellery

In five separate operations, Istanbul police seized 3,500 year-old Sumerian jewellery, Assyrian and Akkadian seals and Ottoman and Seljuk artifacts. It was understood that the historical artifacts were removed from historical graves in parts of Syria controlled by the PYD, and proceeds from sale of the priceless artifacts would be given to the terrorist organization. Nine people were detained.

Teams from departments responsible for the control of smuggling received information that tombs in regions of Syria under the control of the terror organisation PYD had been opened and the historical artifacts would be brought to Turkey and sold abroad. Following investigations, five separate operations were carried out in two weeks.

Searches were carried out at several addresses, including an antique shop, and artifacts seized included: 153 gold objects belonging to the 3,500 year-old Sumerian culture; religious statuettes from the Byzantine period; and bronze cooking implements from the Seljuk period.

During the two-week operation, nine people were taken into custody, among them an antique dealer. The nine were released after completion of legal formalities.

All the seized artifacts were handed over to the Istanbul Directorate of Museums.

sumerian artefactsContraband Goods police also seized 26,400 historical artifacts last month. In an exercise labeled “Zeus Operation”, dozens of priceless artifacts were seized including a sword belonging to the Mycaenean culture, known as the Sword of Achilles, a bust of Alexander the Great in the style of an Indian god, the royal crown of Helius and a silver medallion of Caesar. Eleven of the thirteen suspects were taken into custody.

The Mycaenean sword had drawn particular international attention. It is understood that the Police had received dozens of thank you phone calls after this operation.

There is no way to prevent artifact smuggling without genuine cooperation between countries, Turkey’s Culture and Tourism Minister Numan Kurtulmuş said on Jan. 29.

“It is impossible to completely prevent historical artifact smuggling without the sincere cooperation of countries, just as it’s not possible to prevent the global dimension of terror without sincere cooperation in fighting terrorism,” Kurtulmuş said at a ceremony in the capital Ankara showcasing historical artifacts recently repatriated to Turkey.

[My translation]


Original Hagia Sophia tiles in France


Ruins of the Achaemenid city Persepolis, Iran

My step-daughter has just returned from a visit to Iran. She was there to deliver a paper at a conference, but was able to do a little sight-seeing. One of the “must-sees” for tourists is the UNESCO-listed ruins of Persepolis, ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid Empire (ca. 550–330 BCE). Those guys get an honourable mention in the Biblical Old Testament for permitting exiled Jews to return to their homeland and build a great temple in Jerusalem. Their kindness to the Jews, however, didn’t save them from having their magnificent city looted and burned by the army of the Great Macedonian Alexander as he marauded his way east on his mission to conquer the world.

Apparently present-day Iranians are unhappy that many artefacts from Persepolis later found their way into the collections of museums in Europe and the United States. I did a quick check online, and sure enough:

“A number of bas-reliefs from Persepolis are kept at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England. There is also a collection from Persepolis at the British Museum. The Persepolis bull at the Oriental Institute is one of the university’s most prized treasures, but it is only one of several objects from Persepolis on display at the University of Chicago. New York City’s Metropolitan Museum houses objects from Persepolis, as does the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology of the University of Pennsylvania. The Museum of Fine Arts of Lyon and the Louvre of Paris hold objects from Persepolis as well.” (Wikipedia)

Inevitably our discussion turned to the matter of other historical and archaeological treasures housed in museums far from their original homes. Step-daughter was sure she’d seen the Rosetta Stone, key to translating Egyptian hieroglyphics, in Cairo. I was equally sure I’d seen it in the British Museum – and another online check confirmed that the one in London is the real one. The same institution counts among its most prized possessions, apart from probably more Egyptian mummies than you’ll find in Egypt, the so-called Elgin Marbles – a vast store of marble friezes and sculptures from the Parthenon in Athens, smuggled away in several shiploads by the British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire in the early years of the 19th century. Greek governments have repeatedly asked for them to be returned – but the Brits are having none of that.

Elsewhere, the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna has a large section devoted to treasures from the classical city of Ephesus in modern Turkey, including a 70-metre frieze commemorating a (rare) Roman victory over the Parthians in 165CE. The Treasures of Priam, King of Troy (also in modern Turkey) were spirited away in the 1870s by the German archaeologist, Heinrich Schliemann. They were exhibited in the Berlin Ethnological Museum until 1945 when they disappeared – turning up later (in 1993) in Moscow, of all places. Well, it’s hard to get self-righteous about having stolen property stolen by someone else, I guess.


A popular conversation piece in 19th century drawingrooms

New Zealand’s indigenous Maori have for years been trying to get back tattooed human heads that were popular with European collectors of cultural curiosities in the early days of colonisation. I’ve recently been made aware (thanks Lara!) of a similar campaign by native American peoples to repatriate human remains from universities in Canada.

It seems the government of Turkey is at the forefront of this worldwide struggle to have purloined cultural and archeological objects returned to their homeland. In recent years, they have won several significant court battles resulting in the handing back of disputed sculptures and other artefacts. One such was the Sarcophagus of Heracles, smuggled out of Turkey in the 1960s, seized by port authorities in Switzerland in 2010.

And here’s another interesting one in the news this week:

A panel of tiles in Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia Museum were smuggled to France in the 1890s and replaced with imitations, according to museum director Hayrullah Cengiz. 

“You can see the logo seal ‘made in France, Sevres’ behind the tiles,” he said, speaking to the state-run Anadolu Agency. 


“Identical” ceramic tile panels on the tomb of Sultan Selim II

According to Cengiz, the Hagia Sophia receives nearly two million local and foreign visitors every year. One of the two panels on the sides of the entrance of the tomb of Sultan Selim II, son of Süleyman the Magnificent, are an imitation of the original tiles, he said. 

“The tomb is a work of Mimar Sinan, the greatest architect in the Ottoman state. These tiles were taken to France for restoration in the 1890s by the Frenchman, Albert Dorigny, who came to the Ottoman Empire as a dentist. But they were not returned. Instead, imitation tiles were made in France and mounted in place of the originals. The original tiles are on the right side. You can see the difference between the two panels. These are a perfect example of 16th century tiles.”

Cengiz said the Culture and Tourism Ministry had made a request to the French Ministry of Culture for the tiles to be returned. “These tiles were being exhibited in the ‘Arts of Islam’ section of the Louvre Museum in France. They have recently been removed, most likely due to complaints,” he added.

“The restoration of five tombs here was finished in 2009. It was revealed that these tiles were imitations during the restoration work, as you can easily see the logo ‘Made in France, Sevres’ written behind them. When you look at the difference between the two tiles on the right and the left, you can see the beauty of the original ones. The colors of the others have faded and lost their gloss because they are imitations, even though they have been there for only 100 years. The original ones, which are 400 years old, look brand new,” he said.

Cengiz also said the two panels are made up of 60 tiles and the fake ones were an exact copy of the original. “It is not too difficult to copy them, but as years pass by, the difference becomes evident. Not only did Dorigny smuggle this panel, he probably stole many other tiles from Istanbul museums where he had done restorations in those years.”

Now that was a cheeky one!

Art dealer accepts prized coffin’s return to Turkey

Well, here’s an interesting news item. Apparently Swiss law is clear on the matter of stolen antiquities – but publicly encouraging the assassination of a visiting head of state is a grey area.

“Lawyers say a Roman Empire-era coffin depicting the 12 labors of Hercules is set to go home to Turkey, ending a legal battle over a prized artifact that had mysteriously turned up in Geneva’s secretive customs-office warehouse years ago.


This undated photo shows a 2nd century BCE sarcophagus in sculpted marble depicting the 12 labours of Hercules. Authorities say thecoffin is set to return home to Turkey, ending a legal battle over an artifact that mysteriously turned up in Geneva’s secretive customs office warehouse years ago (Ministere public genevois via AP)

The Inanna Art Services, a private cultural goods importer that had legal possession of the three-ton marble sarcophagus, had tried for months to block the restitution before deciding two weeks ago “to contribute to the return” by abandoning its efforts in Swiss courts, Didier Bottge, a lawyer for the importer, said in a phone interview on Tuesday.

From his clients’ viewpoint, “the case is closed,” said Bottge. Inanna had appealed a decision in September 2015 by the Geneva’s public prosecutor’s office to hand over what it called the “priceless” sarcophagus to Turkey.

The planned handover, expected sometime in the coming months, marks a successful cooperation between Swiss and Turkish authorities at a time of tensions between their two countries.

Swiss authorities are investigating whether any laws were broken when protesters against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan over the weekend held up a banner bearing the words “Kill Erdogan,” as well as allegations of spying by people linked to Turkey in the Alpine nation.

The decision follows a nearly seven-year legal saga for the sarcophagus after it turned up in the secretive Geneva Free Ports warehouse. Cultural officials have said the coffin, showing scenes of Hercules strangling the Nemean Lion and killing the Hydra, is one of 12 of its kind known in the world.

It’s been traced to the Roman city of Dokimeion, thought to have been in the modern-day province of Antalya in Turkey.”

Read more

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

Piyale Pasha – the man and the mosque

Istanbul is a huge city. Visitors from abroad tend to concentrate on the Sultanahmet (Blue Mosque) area of the old city, and the shopping/entertainment neighbourhood of Taksim/Beyoğlu. The modern expansion of the city began in the late 1960s when the population was around two million. Now the official count is 13.5 million, but, as with other cities in the megalopolis class, a lot depends on where you draw the boundaries.
Piyale Pasha
16th century Ottoman admiral

In the 16th century, at the peak of Ottoman power, the imperial capital of Istanbul/Constantinople was still enclosed within the 22 kilometres of defensive walls built by the Roman emperor Theodosius II in the 5th century. Nevertheless there was, in addition, much activity outside. The satellite settlement of Galata across the Golden Horn continued its role as trading centre and residential suburb for non-citizens of the empire: Venetians, Genoese and other Europeans drawn by the magnetic attraction of this gateway to the East. The town of Scutari/Üsküdar on the Asian shore served as launching pad for the pageantry and adventure of annual pilgrimages to the Muslims’ holy city of Mecca. The Ottoman navy, scourge of the Mediterranean littoral, had its main base, shipyards, cannon foundries and other associated industries on the northern shore of the Golden Horn and around the corner as far as the Bosporus village of Beşiktaş.

Despite the exponential growth of Istanbul’s population and fears, or at least claims, that the present government of Turkey has been trying to recreate a neo-Ottoman sphere of influence, those glory days of empire are long gone. Passenger ferries and other small craft were still being built in the Golden Horn shipyards in the 1980s, and repairs carried out in the dry-dock until more recently – but the decision has at last been taken, as in London and other world cities, to find new uses for the disused docklands area: a hotel or two, modern shopping no doubt, recreational facilities such as parks and cycleways. You can observe the pattern in Liverpool, Gloucester, Melbourne, Australia, even my own home town of Auckland, New Zealand.
Of course those docklands areas contain much of their cities’ heritage, and sensitive redevelopment must include preservation of buildings with historical significance, perhaps adapting them for modern purposes such as up-market apartments, museums and art galleries. One advantage of such urban renewal is that it brings new life and visitors to parts of a city that may have been neglected no-go zones for many years.
One such area of Istanbul is the neighbourhood of Kasımpaşa. The current Prime Minister of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, continues to attract more than his fair share of criticism, and one sticking point for some modern Turks seems to be that he was born and raised in this ‘mahalle’which, if there were a railway track nearby, would definitely be on the ’wrong’ side. For his part, the PM seems quite proud of his humble origins – and they may arguably contribute to his popularity among the less exalted echelons of Turkish society.
Mosque of Piyale Pasha, Kasımpaşa

Mosque of Piyale Pasha, Kasımpaşa

On Sunday I ventured, in the company of a Turkish friend, into the interior of the ‘hood in search of a mosque I had seen from a distance, but never visited. Perhaps it’s a measure of the status of Kasımpaşa that the taxi driver we hailed to drive us had no idea about the location or even the existence of Piyale Pasha Mosque, and dropped us off within sight of another one nearer the waterfront – or perhaps, on reflection, he was nervous about plunging too far into unknown territory.

By dint of asking directions and walking a kilometre or so, we did eventually arrive at the building we were seeking – a large 16thcentury stone edifice set in an uncharacteristically (for Istanbul) green area of fig trees, walnuts and market gardens. There is some mystery about the building itself, in part because its design is also uncharacteristic of mosques of the Ottoman Imperial period. The general rule, modelled on the great cathedral of Hagia Sophia, is a large single dome covering the inner sanctuary – but Piyale Pasha, or his architect perhaps, reverted to an earlier design with six smaller domes supported by two granite columns in the prayer area. Most sources credit the mosque to the architect Sinan, shining star of Ottoman architecture – but the unusual design leaves some room for doubt.
Piyale Pasha himself seems to have been an interesting character, not least because he chose to locate his memorial mosque far from the capital’s commercial and residential hub. Sources say he was of Croatian origin, captured (in battle?) and brought to Istanbul at the age of 11 where he was then educated in the palace itself. He went on to become a provincial governor and later an admiral in the imperial navy, testimony to the eclectic and meritocratic nature of Ottoman society at the time.
Surprisingly, Piyale Pasha is not well known, even in Turkey, despite marrying the daughter of Sultan Selim II and becoming his grand vizier. His fame is overshadowed by older colleagues, Barbaros Hayrettin Pasha and Turgut Reis. Nevertheless, he seems to have achieved considerable success in his own right, his raids on coastal towns of Italy and Spain forcing Christian states into some semblance of unity to defend their territories. Ottoman forces in the second half of the 16th century came to control the Aegean and much of the Mediterranean, including the North African coast and the strategic island of Cyprus – which, incidentally, they seized from the Catholic Venetians, not the Orthodox Greeks.
Interior of Piyale Pasha Mosque

Interior of Piyale Pasha Mosque

Perhaps Admiral Piyale suffers from his close association with a sultan often considered to have begun his empire’s downward slide. Certainly Selim II had a hard act to follow. His father, Suleiman, known in English as the Magnificent, ruled for 45 years, and is generally regarded as having presided over the Ottoman Golden Age. During his son’s 8-year reign, on the other hand, Ottoman forces suffered major setbacks against Russia, and Christian Europe at the Battle of Lepanto. Selim apparently had a reputation for enjoying a tipple, and one of his achievements was reopening bars and meyhanes closed by his father in the later years of his rule. The Wikipediaentry asserts that the unlucky sultan died as a result of a head injury sustained when he fell in his bathroom after a session of over-indulgence.

Well, maybe that’s one reason why PM Erdoğan has some reservations about the benefits of drinking alcohol. Certainly, when he breaks a bottle of sparkling grape juice over the 3rd Bosporus Bridge in the opening ceremony, he will want to make it clear that the structure will be named for Sultan Selim I and not Selim II.
In a more serious vein, I noticed, when visiting Admiral Piyale’s mosque, recently renovated, that the mihrab (sacred altar) is beautifully decorated with ceramic tiles, and high on the walls runs a lengthy Koranic text in elegant Ottoman/Arabic calligraphy – while the rest of the walls and interior of the domes are uncharacteristically plain. Several articles I read stated that interior decoration had originally been more elaborate. They also noted that the mosque had been extensively rebuilt in the 19thcentury. Reading between the lines, it would seem that there was a time when Piyale Pasha Mosque fell into disuse and disrepair, and perhaps prey to theft and desecration.
Interestingly, Turkey’s Ministry of Culture has begun taking steps to repatriate a display of tiles in the Paris Louvre Museum it claims were removed from the Kasımpaşa mosque and exported illegally. Authorities at the Louvre, needless to say, deny the claim, and say the tiles were acquired between 1871 and 1940 ‘in conditions that were perfectly legal and in line with the rules of the time.’
The Wikipedia entry says that  ‘a number of identical Iznik tiled lunette panels that are now on display in different museums including the Musée du Louvre in Paris, the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian in Lisbon and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London are believed to have been removed from the Piyale Pasha Mosque in the 19th  century.’ It goes on to say that ‘Two tiles from another lunette panel and a pair of tiles that probably came from the mihrab were sold at auction by Christie’s in 2004.’
In fact, while roaming around the internet on this subject, I came across this item up for auction at Bonhams‘An Iznik pottery tile, Turkey, circa 1575, Provenance: Greek private collection.

This elegant tile relates directly to lunette panels in the Louvre, the Musee des Art Decoratifs and the Gulbenkian Foundation. The first of these panels came from the Piyale Pasha Mosque (1573) in Istanbul.’
Well, it’s none of my business. I’m happy that Parisians and other visitors to the Louvre have the opportunity to see such examples of high Ottoman art – and if it helps them to a better understanding of their Muslim neighbours, perhaps the tiles should stay where they are. 

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.

The Don Draper Syndrome – More on looted treasures

There is a popular American TV series, Mad Men, set in and around a New York Madison Avenue advertising agency of the 1960s. The central character is charismatic womanizer Don Draper, whose tragic flaw is his shady past. A certain Private Dick Whitman swapped dog tags with, and assumed the identity of his officer, Lt Don Draper, who died alongside him on active service in the Korean War. The reinvented ‘Draper’ builds a stellar career in the emergent advertising industry, accompanied by his picture postcard wife Betty and their two ideal children.
Sir Charles Nicholson Bart – or was he?
Well, if you follow the series, you know what I’m talking about and how it turns out – if you don’t, it’s worth a look, and I’m not going to spoil a fascinating story for you. What I’m really interested in here is the intriguing business of borrowed identity, and its connection to a topic dear to my heart – the treasures of antiquity: who they belong to and what should be done with them.
With a little time to kill in Sydney on my recent trip to see family downunder, I visited one of the town’s lesser-known attractions, the Nicholson Museum, located on the campus of Sydney University. It’s not a huge establishment by world standards, but is said to have the largest collection of antiquities in the Southern Hemisphere. Sydney-siders and Australians generally are indeed fortunate in having access to such a collection of artifacts from Ancient Egypt, Greek and Roman civilizations, and, most interesting to me, a special exhibition showcasing relics of the ancient Etruscans, of whom more later.
Sir Charles Nicholson Baronet was apparently quite a big noise in Sydney back in the mid-19th century. A small plaque near the entrance to the museum informs the visitor that he emerged from humble origins to subsequent fame and fortune – suggesting a fairy tale rags-to-riches, self-made man. A more detailed biography inside explains that Sir Charles had been orphaned as a child and raised by an aunt. The transition from rags to riches had, in fact, been facilitated somewhat by the death of a wealthy uncle who had bequeathed him a substantial fortune.
This fortuitous leg-up set the young man on his path to fame and public honours. He was elected to the New South Wales Legislative Council in 1843, later becoming Speaker of the House. He was one of the founding fathers and first Chancellors of Sydney University and, according to the Australian Dictionary of Biography, was regarded as ‘one of the most cultivated men in the colony.’ Financial independence enabled Charles Nicholson to travel extensively through Europe, Egypt and the Near East where, it seems, he amassed a large and valuable collection of Egyptian, Roman and Etruscan antiquities’. One source claims he bought them, which in itself raises interesting questions. This collection he later donated to the University of Sydney, leading to the establishment of the Museum which bears his name and preserves it for succeeding generations . . . only it wasn’t his name!
Sydney historian Michael Turner, his curiosity aroused, as was mine, by the glib contradictions of the Nicholson fairy tale, carried out a lengthy investigation and established that ‘Charles Nicholson’ had in fact been born Isaac Ascough in 1808, son of an unmarried maid from a village in Yorkshire. The identity of the father is not known, but clearly there was a mysterious benefactor whose generosity paid for the young Isaac to attend and graduate M.D. from Edinburgh University in 1833. The Ascough uncle, whose legacy provided the wealth for ‘Charles Nicholson’s’ new life, apparently made his pile as owner and captain of ships transporting convicts from the slums of industrial London to the penal colonies of Australia.
The entry in the ADB, on the other hand, reads: Sir Charles Nicholson (1808-1903), statesman, landowner, businessman, connoisseur, scholar and physician, was born on 23 November 1808 in Cockermouth, Cumberland, England, the only son of Charles Nicholson, merchant, and of Barbara Ascough, the daughter of a wealthy London merchant’, and goes on in a similar vein. Mad Man Don Draper’s transformation pales into small-time insignificance alongside that.
Well, money, like love, is capable of covering a multitude of sins, and charity too, as many a latter-day billionaire will attest. Leaving aside those who acquire it from a lottery ticket, it’s a rare human being that can accumulate a major fortune in one lifetime – and an even rarer one who can do it without resorting to shady practices. Having made one’s fortune, however, the urge to establish oneself as a pillar of society is strong – and what better way than by donating large sums to a worthy cause or two?
It’s mostly speculation on my part, of course. There was nothing illegal about what Uncle Ascough did to accumulate his wealth – the British Government wanted to ship thousands of London’s convicted poor to Australia, and getting the shipping contract could be a lucrative business. Still, a sensitive young man might not be too proud of such an uncle and his line of work, even if he inherited the money on said uncle’s death. The same sensitive man might also feel twinges of conscience about having ‘collected’ thousands of priceless antiquities on his Grand Tour of the Ancient World. He might possibly calculate that, with one large donation to the University Museum, he could sanitise the money he had inherited, assuage his conscience, forestall questioning about his origins, and purchase respectability in a new land. I’m not saying that’s how it was, but isn’t it possible?
Certainly it’s not an uncommon practice among the fabulously wealthy. Take George Soros as an example. His Wikipedia entry describes him as ‘business magnate, investor and philanthropist.’ His philanthropy covers a range of causes, from encouraging democracy in Eastern Europe, through eliminating poverty in Africa, to financing political opposition to the re-election of George W Bush – all worthy objects, you’d have to agree. Mr Soros’s wealth, however, was mostly sourced from edgy financial wheeling and dealing, especially currency speculation on a monumental scale. The Prime Minister of Malaysia at the time blamed Soros for the Asian financial collapse of the late 1990s. More recently, he was convicted by French courts for insider trading related to dodgy activities in the late 1980s. One could argue that this Hungarian-American-Jewish ‘business magnate’ has been one of the prominent engineers of the global financial house of cards that collapsed with such disastrous results for the world economy in 2008.
Of course it’s nice, perhaps even praiseworthy that Soros ‘gave away over $8 billion to human rights, public health and education causes’ between 1979 and 2011. On the other hand, I imagine he still has a few billion left for his own creature comforts; and if that largesse purchased him a place in heaven and a reputation for philanthropy to go with his honorary doctorates from Yale, Oxford and several lesser universities, he may consider the money to have been well spent.
But I digress. Getting back to the Nicholson Museum in Sydney – its collection includes treasures from Greece, Italy, Egypt and Cyprus. For locals to see such wonders would otherwise require a time-consuming and expensive journey to some Northern Hemisphere institution – so its existence is lucky for Australians. Nevertheless, when you see that monumental sculpted head of Egyptian Pharaoh Rameses II, or the stone capital from a column of the Temple of Bubastis, you can’t help marveling at the achievement of Sir Nicolson-Ascough in getting his collection out of the various countries he visited, and back around the world to Sydney, NSW. For sure, they are not the kind of thing you can stash in a suitcase, conceal in your underwear or secrete in a bodily orifice. We’re talking here about some serious manpower, a bullock cart or two, and maybe even a train of camels, not to mention a couple of industrial-size containers. My guess is he didn’t have to worry about a 23 kg limit for his check-in baggage on the trip back downunder – but still, it’s hard to see the whole enterprise being accomplished without some connivance by local officials who may or may not have been paid off to provide assistance, or at least turn a blind eye.
Undoubtedly regulations regarding the ownership of unearthed antiquities were less stringent in those days, as were those controlling border crossings. At least two books have been published on a phenomenon sometimes known as the Rape of Egypt, which reached its peak around the beginning of the 19thcentury. The passion that overtook genteel Europe has been less offensively referred to as Egyptomania, which, however you look at it, involved the mass theft, removal and/or destruction of vast quantities of mummies, statuary and other relics from tombs and pyramids. Apparently there was a fashion in regency drawingrooms for soirées where three or four thousand-year-old corpses were unwrapped for the titillation of the idle rich. Not all were so  flagrantly destroyed, however, and one of the sights that impressed me on my visit to the British Museum was a room containing more mummies than I saw in the corresponding institution in Cairo.
To be fair, there is a long tradition of victorious empires uplifting and relocating monuments from conquered territories. The hippodrome in Constantinople contained at least three such trophies, two of which can still be seen in present-day Istanbul: the Serpent Column, originally located in Delphi, Greece; and a huge portion of Egyptian obelisk purloined from the Temple of Karnak, where it had been erected by the Pharaoh Tutmoses around 1400 BCE. The third piece was a group of four bronze horses formerly standing over the entrance to the stadium, which can now be seen adorning the facade of St Marks Basilica in Venice, whither they were transported by knights of the Fourth Crusade after the sack and pillaging of their sister Christian city in 1204. It is said that booty from conquest of Jerusalem in 70 CE financed the building of the Colosseum in Rome by the Emperors Vespasian and Titus – and who remembers that these days?
Two brothers of Italian extraction, Luigi and Alessandro di Palma Ceonola, served sequentially as American consul to Cyprus in the 1860s and 70s. As a sideline to their consular duties, the brothers carried out archeological excavations, which, after the US ended its diplomatic presence on the island, became a full-time occupation. Their digs resulted in a collection of thousands of valuable artifacts, much of which ended up in the Metropolitan Museum in New York, while some was sold to collectors in the United Kingdom. Authorities in Cyprus today still, I understand, consider the actions of the brothers as tantamount to looting. More recently, another Australian gentleman with the imposing name of Professor James Rivers Barrington Stewart, carried out extensive excavations of burial sites on the island. It was, I gather, only after Cyprus gained independence from Great Britain in 1960 that controls were placed on the removal of ancient artifacts.
I spent a significant portion of my high school days attending classes in the Latin language – for which I am, in fact, quite grateful. In an odd way, its peculiarities of noun declensions, verb conjugations and idiosyncratic syntax prepared me for my later, more practical study of Turkish. Hand in hand with the language, we Grammar boys were also expected to acquire a knowledge of Roman life, history and customs. Not a lot stuck, I have to confess, but I do recall that the Roman calendar was dated from a zero year corresponding to our 753 BCE. Following after the lupine siblings Romulus and Remus, legendary founders of the great city, was a succession of six kings, the last three of which were allegedly Etruscan.
Well, from those days to these, the Etruscans never crossed my path again – until my visit to the Nicholson Museum. That establishment, as I mentioned, houses a collection of relics of those very Etruscans, and I found myself empathising across the millennia with that lost civilization. Very little, it seems, is known of the people whose language and culture were well nigh obliterated by the Romans who conquered them. What we do know mostly derives from tombs and funerary inscriptions, and suggests that Etruscan civilization arose around the 8th century BCE. The people are thought to have originated from Asia Minor, and spoke a language unrelated to any we know.
Professor Graziano Baccolino of the University of Bologna makes the surprising claim that the Etruscans deserve to be recognized as ‘the true founders of European civilisation’, and suggests that the Romans deliberately denied their debt to these people from the East, falsifying their own history to facilitate the cover up. The English novelist DH Lawrence, in a collection of travel essays entitled ‘Etruscan Places’, waxes lyrical on these ancient folk: The things [the Etruscans] did, in their easy centuries, are as natural and as easy as breathing. They leave the breast breathing freely and pleasantly, with a certain fullness of life. Even the tombs. And that is the true Etruscan quality: ease, naturalness, and an abundance of life, no need to force the mind or the soul in any direction. And death, to the Etruscan, was a pleasant continuance of life, with jewels and wine and flutes playing for the dance. It was neither an ecstasy of bliss, a heaven, nor a purgatory of torment. It was just a natural continuance of the fullness of life. Everything was in terms of life, of living.’
He is less generous to their conquerors who, he says, ‘did wipe out the Etruscan existence as a nation and a people. However, this seems to be the inevitable result of expansion with a big E, which is the sole raison d’étre of people like the Romans.’
So it’s not a new phenomenon. Isaac Ascough aka Sir Charles Nicholson is part of a long tradition wherein sons of empire have, for millennia, appropriated the trappings of overthrown civilisations. Just as inevitable, perhaps, is the emerging trend, in today’s world, for descendants of the losing sides to seek redress and perhaps the return of looted treasures. It is not a conflict amenable to easy solution.