Turkey’s fight against cultural plunder should start at home

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Restrictions on the importation of cultural products can be a double-edged sword.

This is why the recent U.S. Government Publication of Restricted Imports of Cultural Goods from Turkey, at the latter’s request, caused mixed reactions, including outrage. While illicit trafficking in antiquities is a serious problem, some scholars fear Turkey will use the new agreement to further marginalize displaced indigenous communities by reducing what little autonomy they have left over their failing heritage. disappearance.

As a researcher on heritage crime and preservation policies with family roots in the erased Armenian and Assyrian communities of the Ottoman Empire, I am not convinced that Turkey implemented in good faith the import ban on United States. Because if it really cared about its vast cultural heritage, Turkey would start this protection at home.

Since its founding in 1923 as a republic out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, Turkey has erased much of its diverse heritage. The Turkish government has deliberately destroyed, illegally confiscated or willfully neglected the sacred sites of indigenous communities, especially Armenians, Assyrians and Greeks. These communities were victims of state sponsored genocide and ethnic cleansing during and after World War I, well-documented crimes that Turkey vehemently denies. The number of Armenian Ottoman churches and monasteries active before 1914 alone was 2 989; almost all of them have since been leveled, damaged or reused.

Senior curator and restorer Venizelos Gavrilakis works to clean and restore a 16th-century Byzantine Christian icon at a Greek Orthodox church on December 4, 2020, in Istanbul, Turkey.
Chris McGrath / Getty Images

On June 16, three American agencies published the “import restrictions imposed on categories of archaeological and ethnological material from Turkey”. The list was based on a January 19, 2021 memorandum of understanding signed between the United States and Turkey on the last full day of Donald Trump’s presidency. The list includes “archaeological material” spanning nearly 1.2 million years up to the year 1770, and “ethnological material” spanning the last 1900 years, up to 1923. The United States has two dozen similar documents. bilateral agreements, which are renewable every five years.

“The memorandum of understanding of January 19 does not fully meet the four requirements stipulated in the 1983 law on the implementation of the Convention on Cultural Property (CPIA),” said Elisabeth prodromou, expert on religion and geopolitics in Turkey and former commissioner of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom. She insisted that the MOU violates US law.

Specifically, Prodromou argued that Turkey had failed to take measures consistent with its international obligations. “Turkey’s arbitrary decision to convert the World Heritage sites of the Great Byzantine Orthodox Church of Hagia Sophia and the Chora Church of the Holy Savior into mosques was a violation of the 1970 UNESCO Convention, so that the signing of the memorandum of understanding by the Trump administration represents a blatant disregard for international agreements and American law. Therefore, the current MoU makes the US State Department an enforcement tool for Turkish state cultural heritage policies that have been designed to erase the country’s indigenous religious and ethnic minority communities, ” she declared. Prodromou calls on the Biden administration to “repeal or, at least, suspend and renegotiate the memorandum of understanding.”

While Turkey projects international concern over the illicit trafficking of antiques, it is doing next to nothing to tackle massive national looting. One would expect the looting to be a clandestine operation, yet thousands of turkish web pages devote themselves to what they affectionately call “the treasure hunt”.

A Looting Practice YouTube Channel, which serves as a content marketing page for a metal detector supplier, the trains its 53,000 subscribers on the looting of ancient Christian sites. In the 31-minute video, UgurElektronik.com owner UÄŸur Kulaç sketches the interior design of a church to identify the locations of “buried treasures”.

In 2018, Kulaç was criticized by Turkish archaeologists for forming a government registered organization called Anatolia Treasure Hunters Training and Research Association. In one national media Apparently, Kulaç claimed that there were 4 million treasure hunters in Turkey, criticizing many of them for their lack of skill and “illegal activities”.

Khulavank, a high place of pilgrimage
Khulavank was a major pilgrimage site before the Armenian Genocide in modern Turkey.
Hrair Hawk Khacher

The Turkish government issues looting authorizes and requires the declaration of the treasures discovered. In addition to the Kulaç store, an online commercial search for the keyword “dedektör” brings up more than 200 stores specializing in the sale and hire of looting throughout Turkey, including the town’s Asur Dedektör (Assyrian detector). from Malatya.

Kulaç is a verified Facebook user. He’s not the only “treasure hunter” legitimized by a tech giant verification badge. Other popular Turkish social media ‘treasure hunt’ accounts include verified YouTube Maceracı Defineci (with more than 479,000 subscribers), Archeolog (more than 200,000 subscribers) and Usta Defineci (190,000+ subscribers), with training video titles like “Armenian treasure“and”Greek treasure. “

Monastery of the Holy Apostles of Mush
Remains of Msho Surp Arakelots (Holy Apostles of Mush) Monastery, once a major center of medieval Armenian theology. Today, it serves as a shelter for goats.
Hrair Hawk Khacher

The “treasure hunt” in Turkey is a by-product of the genocide. Germany-based social anthropologist Alice von Bieberstein, who conducted field research in the ancient Armenian Mush, now populated by Kurds, argued that if “poverty and the global fetishization of underground resources” are factors , the local “treasure hunt” is linked to the “founding state violence” and dispossession that was the Armenian genocide.

Although crowdsourced, this looting is sponsored by the state. As the authors of The spirit of the laws: the plunder of wealth in the Armenian genocide showed, despite the requirement of the Civil Code of Turkey for a database of property titles, property records related to the Armenian Genocide remain top secret. The Turkish state regulates “treasure hunts” in churches, cemeteries, old houses and even remote rural caves so methodically that anthropologist and looting researcher Önder Çelik described Turkish treasure hunt bureaucracy as “an alternative archive for the study of the Armenian genocide”.

Ironically, the recent US ban on illicit Turkish artifacts leaves out a prominent subject related to Armenian history. The heavily looted parts of the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia, dated from the 11th to the 14th century. While some Armenian Cilician bronze coins are sold in Western markets for as little as $ 10 apiece, rare specimens like bilingual silver coins, which commemorates a short-lived Armenian-Seljuk alliance before the Mongol conquests, can exceed $ 1,000 in excellent condition. Ancient coins are considered “the smoking weapons” of archaeological sites. Their looting, especially when unreported, can thwart new discoveries.

The closure of the destructive “treasure hunt” industrial complex would be a critical step for cultural preservation in Turkey and beyond.

“Turkey’s occupation of the northern part of Cyprus for nearly half a century has created the permissive conditions for the looting of local Christian heritage sites, so the US government and the heritage community know full well that the presence of the Turkish army in places like Libya, northern Syria and indirectly in Nagorno-Karabakh endangers both the movable and immovable heritage of local communities ”, noted Prodromou.

In October, Turkish forces reportedly oversaw the intense air offensive by its junior Azerbaijani ally against Nagorno-Karabakh (known to Armenians as Artsakh) which included a double strike on the Saint-Sauveur Cathedral of Shushi. With Turkey’s help, Azerbaijan now controls much of the region, where reports of Armenian monuments deletion in progress, especially in light of Azerbaijan destructive recording, have stakeholder communities concerned.

Restoration Assistant Asli Erel cleans the icon
Restoration assistant Asli Erel works cleaning and restoring a 19th-century Byzantine Christian icon at a Greek Orthodox church on December 4, 2020, in Istanbul, Turkey.
Chris McGrath / Getty Images

If it chooses to support cultural preservation beyond its borders, Turkey could advise Azerbaijan to treat Armenian monuments not as a source of hatred, but as a source of hatred. key to peace, through actions such as granting Armenian pilgrims access to ancient sacred sites like Dadivank, Tsitsernavank and Vankasar, churches featured in a new Online exhibition of the Bible Museum which recently came under the control of Azerbaijan. Turkey’s influence on Azerbaijan cannot be overstated: the latter recently formalized the Turkish government’s model of appoint heads of religious minorities.

Cultural preservation and destruction are political choices. A well-meaning Turkey could choose to return their confiscated properties to their Greek, Assyrian and Armenian communities. This could encourage pilgrimages to these sites by descendants of displaced communities by removing barriers to visits such as visa fees. Turkey could invite specialists from Armenia and Greece to jointly excavate with local archaeologists not only Christian monuments but also archaeological sites such as Amida Höyük and Arzan, candidates for Tigranocerta, long lost Armenian Hellenistic imperial capital. Doing the latter could serve as a positive model for Azerbaijan, which otherwise even denies the existence of a similar archaeological site, Tigranakert d’Artsakh, in its recently acquired territories.

Turkey has already taken positive steps by naming Christian monumental complexes in recent years Aghtamar, Ani and Midyat as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. On this basis, Turkey should dismantle its industrial plundering complex.

Simon Maghakyan is a visiting scholar at Tufts University and a lecturer at the University of Colorado at Denver. Research for his writings was made possible through a grant from the Armenian General Charitable Union (UGAB).

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.



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