Turkey is not only a cradle for the most ancient civilizations of the world but also continues to serve as a honey pot for smugglers of cultural and natural assets.

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Turkey a magnet for smugglers of historical artifacts

Turkey is not only a cradle for the most ancient civilizations of the world but also continues to serve as a honey pot for smugglers of cultural and natural assets.

Every year, valuable historical artifacts are stolen from Turkey and made part of the collections of various museums around the world.

According to the “Cultural and Natural Assets Smuggling Report” prepared by the Culture and Tourism Ministry based on figures provided by the Anti-smuggling and Organized Crime Bureau (KOM) of the police department, Turkey sees higher statistics related to the smuggling of historical artifacts every year.

In 2003 security authorities seized 3,255 historical artifacts that smugglers were attempting to take abroad. With a steady rise over years, this figure rose to 17,936 in 2007. And another new high came in 2008, when authorities seized 42,073 historical artifacts and detained 4,077 suspects in 1,576 operations.

Coins are the favorite of smugglers as they are relatively easy to take abroad without detection. The number of coins seized by security authorities rose from 20,461 in 2007 to 55,613 in 2008.

The report notes that as Turkey is a country of tourism, it is also the country that attracts the most smugglers. Greece, Egypt, Syria, Italy, China, India, Iran and Iraq are among the countries where cases of theft and smuggling of historical artifacts are common, according to the report.

Conflicts fuel smuggling

The report also maintains that conflicts and wars tend to create a suitable atmosphere for the smuggling of historical artifacts, as seen in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the ongoing wars allow smugglers to operate freely. The majority of historical artifacts smuggled out of these countries are sent to Western countries via Turkey. This route of smuggling implies that these historical artifacts are purchased by collectors in rich Western countries. The US, the UK, Switzerland and Japan are the favorite destinations for these items.

The report cites lack of sufficient security measures against theft in museums as the major reason for the high number of smuggling cases. Tourism is the most widely used venue for smuggling historical artifacts.Furthermore, Turkey lacks a sufficient and clear inventory of historical artifacts in the country, and Turkey does not have statistics about existing historical artifacts and about already smuggled items.

The most important historical artifact that was taken outside of Turkey is the Bergama Zeus-Athena Altar; however, this altar cannot be reclaimed as it was sold by an order from the Ottoman sultan of the time at a very low price to Germany. The South Agora Portal of Miletos, too, had been taken out of the country in the same manner.

Wanting to counteract the increasing cases of smuggling of historical artifacts, security authorities asked the General Directorate of Cultural Assets and Museums to complete an inventory of the country’s cultural assets while suggesting that a bill should be passed to limit and inspect the use and sale of metal detectors. The Culture Ministry is likely to convey this proposal to the government in the coming days.

KOM and the Culture Ministry signed a new protocol in 2005 to combat the smuggling of historical artifacts.  While Turkey has managed to reclaim some major historical artifacts smuggled from Turkey to the US and the UK, it is still unable to implement effective measures against the smuggling of new ones.

The figures available to security authorities consist only of the statistics on seized artifacts during operations; yet, there is no reliable, if any, information about the number of historical and cultural artifacts illegally taken outside the country.

$17 million spent

Nevertheless, the Culture and Tourism Ministry has managed to have some rough estimates about which artifacts were taken to which countries. Until now, the ministry has spent $17 million to reclaim these artifacts, and it is still working on bringing other works of art and history back to the country. Here is a non-exhaustive list of major historical artifacts illegally taken out of Turkey:

Germany: The Bergama Zeus-Athena Altar, the Aphrodisias Old Fisherman Statue, the mihrab (niche) of Konya’s Beyhekim Mosque, the Hacı Bayram Veli tomb and Troy artifacts. Boğazköy tablets and Sphinxes, an Antiochos head fragment, artifacts from the Henkel collection, a terracotta statue, a marble bas-relief tablet and artifacts seized in Bremen and Tutlingen were returned to Turkey.

The UK: The Ottoman tombac, the pulpit door stolen from İzmir’s Birgi Aydınoğlu Mehmet Bey Mosque, artifacts from a sunken ship in the English Channel, artifacts seized at Heathrow Airport and a bronze Dionysus statue were returned to Turkey.

Russia: Troy artifacts.

Austria: The artifacts seized at the Suben border crossing and triple Hekate statue still have not been returned, while the marble head of a woman was able to be reclaimed.

The US: The Heracles statue, the Kumluca artifacts. A 93-piece collection of Ottoman apparel, a seaman’s lantern, the Meleager head from the historical site of Aphrodisias, a lead seal, Atatürk’s silver cigarette case, a Quran stolen from the Nuruosmaniye Library and 1,676 Elmali coins were returned to Turkey.

Denmark: The Sphinx figure from the Diyarbakır Museum, the sarcophagus (sanduka) from the Akşehir Seydi Mahmut Hayrani tomb, the Cizre Ulu Mosque doorknob, several Quran pages from the Nuruosmaniye Library and the screens of the portal of Konya’s Beyşehir Eşrefoğlu Mosque were returned to Turkey.

Italy: The process of the reclamation of an ancient inscription tablet seized by the Italian Interpol is under way, while a bronze vase was returned.

Switzerland: The Elmalı coins, the statue of a woman stolen from the courtyard of the İzmir Museum Directorate and some artifacts from the Roman era seized in Zürich were returned to Turkey.

France: Many Lydian artifacts are still in this country.

27 September 2009, Sunday

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