Ankara, Turkey – Serdal Kuyucuoglu sits behind his desk in the Turkish parliament, flicking through a book detailing some of the thousands of ancient artefacts he says have been plundered from Anatolia over the past 200 years.
“There were so many things stolen from Turkey that are now held in museums in the US, England, Portugal, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece,” he said as he gazed at pictures of treasures from civilisations that once ruled parts of what is now modern-day Turkey.
“Even Greece, which like Turkey has also suffered from this smuggling and theft, took a lot of artefacts when they retreated after their defeat in the [Turkish] War of Independence.”
Kuyucuoglu, an opposition MP from Mersin, is a leading member of a parliamentary commission tasked with recovering treasures that now sit in museums and private collections across Europe and North America.
Established in October last year, the commission recently travelled around Europe to press for the return of artefacts dating to empires long forgotten by most except historians and archaeologists.
Anatolia has been home to dozens of civilisations that left their mark with ancient monuments and buried treasure. The Assyrians, Hittites, Greeks, Phrygians, Lydians, Carians, Romans, Byzantines, Seljuks and Ottomans are just some of the cultures that once called Anatolia home.
The abundance of artefacts has attracted archaeologists, as well as profit-seeking treasure hunters, whose excavations have seen up to 200,000 items taken overseas.
“Turkey is an open-air museum,” Kuyucuoglu said. “Many cultures grew in Turkey, so it’s a source of many archaeological artefacts.”
Referring to two ancient sites in western Turkey, he wryly added: “It’s strange that the Pergamon Museum is in Berlin and the Ephesus Museum is in Vienna.”
From the early 1800s onwards, foreign archaeologists flocked to Anatolia, then part of the Ottoman Empire, to dig ancient sites.
“In the 19th century, French, British and German archaeologists were in competition with each other because they were trying to fill their museums,” Professor Kutalmis Gorkay, head of classical archaeology at Ankara University, said.
In the wake of these digs, often authorised by Ottoman authorities who had little interest in the relics of earlier empires, amateur diggers followed, many motivated by the large sums paid by private collectors for artefacts.
Today, the availability of technology has seen a rise in this unregulated plunder of ancient tombs and temples, according to Gorkay.
“This is the cradle of many civilisations, and we have many layers of cultures, items and artefacts,” he said.
“The problem now in Turkey is we have a rapid increase in the amount of illegal activities, illegal digs. We noticed that in recent years an increase in the amount of these activities. It’s because of the internet where there are a lot of websites promoting such digs.”
Now Turkey wants its ancient treasures back – and to put a stop to the illegal trade.
“Anatolia is crying for these objects because they are stolen from their motherland,” said Kuyucuoglu. “These cultures grew in Anatolia. The least these countries who hold our treasures could do is return certain items for exhibition in Turkey where they belong.”
There have been a number of recent successes, such as the return of a Roman sarcophagus depicting the 12 labours of Hercules that had been illegally excavated and smuggled out in the 1960s.
“Few among the artefacts, relics originating from Turkey and found and exhibited in the West, are there legally,” Culture Minister Numan Kurtulmus said as he unveiled the sarcophagus at Antalya Museum last September.
According to the culture ministry, more than 4,300 artefacts have been repatriated since 2003, although Kuyucuoglu said 150,000 to 200,000 are still abroad, many in leading museums such as the Louvre in Paris and London’s Victoria and Albert Museum.
“It’s a bit problematic to get back artefacts that have been gone for a long time,” he said.
To illustrate the difficulty, Kuyucuoglu points to Priam’s Treasure – a trove of gold, copper and other artefacts excavated by a German archaeologist who claimed it belonged to legendary Trojan King Priam. The cache was found in 1873 on what is now recognised as the site of ancient Troy, then smuggled overseas and displayed in Berlin. The find now resides in Moscow’s Pushkin Museum, having been stolen by retreating Soviet troops in 1945 and later claimed as war reparations by the Russian government.
“The Germans have demanded them back, but we say they’re ours, and we should have them back,” Kuyucuoglu said. “It’s a long story that will go on for many years, but first we must halt the theft of these objects.”
He added: “There’s an underground market. In certain places like the old bazaar in Istanbul, there are people dealing in artefacts, and there are well-known collectors who they can reach through middlemen.”
According to Ankara University’s Gorkay, ancient sites are often wrecked by treasure hunters uninterested in the historical value of sites.
“Most of the people do not have any idea,” he said. “They’re just doing this to make a profit. They’re not intellectual collectors, they just destroy pottery and look for valuable metals.”
Kuyucuoglu wants tighter controls and harsher penalties but acknowledged the rewards are so great that “even if we said we would hang them, they would still smuggle”.
Arrayed against Turkish claims on its heritage is the argument, often voiced in the West, that Turkey does not look after the history lying under its fields and streets.
As the country modernised, archaeological finds were sometimes overlooked by developers.
However, as Gorkay noted, Turkey is not the only country to weigh the balance between development and preservation.
“You don’t have to collect everything, just document it. Otherwise, it will never stop,” he said. “Istanbul is the capital of Byzantine empire so if you stopped for everything you would do nothing. This is a very difficult issue for Turkey. Every city, every village, every region had their own old settlement.”
Kuyucuoglu, however, emphatically rejected the claim that Turkey cannot be trusted with its heritage. “Maybe years ago we had limited resources to care for such items, but now we have the capability to do so,” he said.
“Now is the time to give them back.”