Archaeology / History

The Stumbling Block – How Turkey and Greece Try to Claim Back their Cultural Assets

Everybody who has ever seen the Pergamon Altar or the Parthenon cannot deny the fascination such monumental heritage creates. Clear lines carved in beautiful marble, sparkling slightly in the light, expressive sculptures looking endlessly noble and magnificent. In the 19th century the adoration for ancient sculptures reached its first climax,  classicism was born and around significant archaeological findings whole buildings were erected, the Pergamon Museum in Berlin is just one example among many others.

But the museums’ solemn peace is disturbed. The Mediterranean nations, first and foremost Turkey and Greece, intend to change their, until now mediocre importance within the worldwide cultural policy, claiming more importance.

In Ankara a 25,000-square-meter “Museum of the Civilizations” is under construction. The organizers hope it will open its doors in 2023, just in time for the 100th anniversary of the Turkish Republic. To fill the shelves and vitrines of this museum, Turkey seems to launch a course of collision towards other museums worldwide, named already by some as a “cultural war”.

“There was a lack of awareness in the past. But today, the world has reached a certain level of development and we have caught up with that level of development, and we are now establishing museums above world standards”, Culture Minister Ertugrul Günay told the Hürriyet Daily News in March 2012. This year he stated towards the Guardian: “The times when we simply exhibited artefacts in cupboards is over. We have caught up … what we have taken back is only a very small part of what we will take back.”

In 2008 a memorable meeting was set up in Athens, which should emphasise the Greeks’ claim to the “Elgin Marbles”. Since long these pieces of the Parthenon frieze known as the “Elgin Marbles”, now located in the British Museum in London, are claimed back by the Greeks. At the beginning of the 19th century those marbles were removed from the Parthenon by Thomas Bruce or better known as Lord Elgin, British ambassador in the Ottoman Empire, and brought to England per ship.


A metope sculpture from the Parthenon showing a mythical battle between a Centaur and a Lapith © The Trustees of the British Museum



The Greek government had invited archaeologists and museum directors to an UNESCO meeting, held within the half-finished New Acropolis Museum at the foot of the castlehill, in the empty hall dedicated to the Parthenon frieze, awaiting also those parts, that are still in the British Museum. Now, copies made of dark plaster fill their gaps.

The legal situation is difficult: The only known prove for the lawful transfer is an Italian document, a translation of a Turkish document from 1801, which is suspected to be a “firman”, a legal permit issued by the Ottoman authorities. But the identification is not one hundred percent.

In 1984 Greek authorities brought the case of the Parthenon Marbles before UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property to its Countries of Origin or Restitution in case of Illict Appropriation for the first time. 1999 the European Parliament called on the UK Government to give positive consideration to Greece’s request for the return of the Elgin Marbles to their natural site, taking the view that the return of the “Elgin Marbles” to Greece would be a key move in promoting Europe’s common cultural heritage. In 2005 the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization asked both sides to initiate a dialogue, but did not insist on more.

The British Museum on the other side refers to the air pollution in Athens or the formalities of the museum, to underline the impossibility of the return. Furthermore it states: “The Parthenon sculptures in London are an important representation of ancient Athenian civilisation in the context of world history. (…)The British Museum tells the story of cultural achievement throughout the world, from the dawn of human history over two million years ago until the present day. The Parthenon Sculptures are a significant part of that story.”

Official statement:


The Chariot Group from the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus. Source: The Trustees of the British Museum

The Chariot Group from the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus. Source: The Trustees of the British Museum



In 2012 two new demands were pronounced. Besides statues from the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus Turkey reclaims the so called “Samsat Stele” as well. Turkey threatens not to give any more loans for exhibitions in Britain as long as the Stele is not returned. That these are no empty words the British Museum already had to learn when asking for 35 objects to be shown at the exhibition „Hajj: Journey to the Heart of Islam“. The loans were already arranged between the British Museum and the Turkish lending museums, but in the last moment the Ministry of Culture interfered. The transfer was refused. The British Museum had to search for alternatives in a short space of time.


Stele of Antiochus, basalt, Turkey, 1st century BC. Source: The Trustees of the British Museum

Stele of Antiochus, basalt, Turkey, 1st century BC. Source: The Trustees of the British Museum



In April 2012 the director of British Museum, Neil MacGregor stated towards the Guardian: „At no point between 1927 and 2005 have the Turkish authorities, who were fully aware of the stele’s location, suggested that is has been improperly acquired or should be returned.“

Official statement:


Two marble statues

Two marble statues from the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, Turkey, 350 BC. Source: The Trustees of the British Museum



It is the same way with the artefacts from the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, a city in western Turkey. „We do not believe that the artefacts were removed legally”  explained Remzi Kazmaz, an Istanbul lawyer. He works along 30 lawyers on behalf of the town of Bodrum, where Halicarnassus belongs to, alongside district and provincial governors in a lawsuit that will be filed in the European court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg on January 30th this year. He does not represent the Turkish government, a spokeswoman of him emphasized, although the Ministry of Culture supports the campaign. A petition with 118,000 signatures will also be presented to the court. The line of attack will be connected to article 1, 1st protocol of the European convention of human rights, which states: “Every natural or legal person is entitled to the peaceful enjoyment of his possessions.”

Olivia Rickman, press and PR manager of the British Museum, said the museum was unaware of an impending legal case. “The British Museum has not been directly notified of the legal case due to be brought to the European Court of Human Rights other than via similar media enquiries such as yours so we can’t comment on that as we are not aware of the details. These pieces were acquired during the course of two British initiatives, both with firmans that granted permission for the excavation of the site and removal of the material from the site (1857 and 1859) and Bodrum Castle (1846) to the British Museum.”

This is the first time human rights law will be used in a repatriation case and has potential to establish a key precedent for all cultural heritage cases in the future. Therefore, this case will be closely watched by Greece, which reclaims the “Elgin Marbles”.

“We aren’t expecting the British Museum to just hand everything back, but we want to open a dialogue so we can at least be active in preserving these artifacts, whether it means we can jointly house them for 10 years at a time or longer. We are open to negotiation” lawyer Kazmaz announces. But if it is a good idea to open negotiations by filing a lawsuit, is questionable.

And also it is doubtful the EHCR will decide this case in the end. After all, the court is designed to solve questions about Human Rights and not to discuss matters of public international law. The court in Strasbourg will surely verify the admissibility and the cognizance of the court. Being an issue of international law, the International Court of Justice in The Hague would be the proper choice of court. The crux of the matter is the phrase “legal person”. Communes and cities are referred to as legal persons, being so called “corporations under public law”.

Germany has to face such demands too. The first demand for the Pergamon Altar, a monumental altar dedicated to Zeus and Athena showing a battle between the Giants and the Olympian gods from the second half of the second century BC, was made in 1998, three years later it was renewed. And still the issue has not been solved. But since the claim was never made officially, a return was never seriously considered. The Altar was removed from its original place with permission by the Ottoman authorities between 1879 and 1886, but today Turkey does not acknowledge its legitimacy. In 2002, the former Cultural State Secretary Fikret Üccan stated towards the German newspaper Die Welt: “They tell us, the Pergamon Altar and other artefacts in the Pergamon Museum were carried out of Turkey with a permission. We can’t verify this. They show us old letters, some of them written by people without much responsibility in that time.”

During 2011 the relationship went from bad to worse, when Turkey pronounced a new request: The Minister for Culture, Ertugrul Günay on behalf of Turkey claimed back the sphinx of Hattuša, a winged lion with the head of a woman, and threatened a general removal of all licences for every German excavation in Turkey, if the sphinx is not repatriated. He complained about the lack of interest and effort of German archaeologists, and the missing progress in restoration and preservation. “If until the start of excavation season the acceptance (to return the sphinx) is missing, I’m determined to annul the excavation licence for Hattuša”, Günay declared towards the German newspaper Tagesspiegel. The missing logic in this argumentation is obvious. At first he complains about unmotivated German archaeologists, but uses as a political leverage the repatriation of the sphinx.

The statue is in German possession since 1915, it was brought there for restoration together with its twin statue and was since then on display in Berlin in the Museum für Vorderasiatische Kunst (Near East Museum). Both sphinxes once flanked a city gate of Hattuša. The second and better preserved was returned to Turkey in 1924. Once, in 1938, a request was made towards the Reich to give back the second sphinx as well, but it was neglected. Since the loss of documents in WWII the affair is even more difficult to decide.

Since 1906 the Germans are running excavations in the former capital of the Hittite Empire in central Anatolia and a more than one hundred year old traditional excavation would find its end, would Turkey have made its thread come true. It would not be the first time, since the licence for Aizanoi, a roman City in west Anatolia containing a well preserved Zeus temple, is lost although the Germans had worked from 1926 till 2011 and since 1970 continuously.

It was not an easy decision to give back the sphinx, because there were only a few and very vague indications Turkey had well-founded claims, there was no necessity for that step. Nonetheless, as a display of good will, the sphinx returned to Istanbul in July 2011.

The next blow came only one year later: The licence for the excavation in Troy was not prolonged.

But still, Turkish Culture Minister Günay spreads the picture of a proud nation being victim of robbery in newspaper interviews, like for the Economist in May 2012: “I wholeheartedly believe that each and every antiquity in any part of the world should eventually go back to its homeland.” Asked whether Alexander’s sarcophagus would be returned to Lebanon, Mr Günay and his interpreter simply ignore the question.

For public museums it is essential, that those artefacts who are now enriching their collections were achieved legally: “In that moment, artefacts are officially and legally correct transferred, there is no reason to complain,” states Hermann Parzinger, head of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, which administers Berlin’s state museums. One has to act on the assumption, “that once made contracts are still valid in the future.” Even if they are made in the late 19th or 20th century.

But how do lawyers see to these questions? The fundamental problem is the lack of information and evidences. “Under normal juridical circumstances these elements of an offense are time-barred long ago” writes lawyer Christian Rumpf in a paper:

„Wem gehört der Pergamonaltar?“:


But one can assume that such cases of compensation and requests for repatriation hold more potential for conflicts than the prospect to create peace with the payment of money or the return of a statue. The restitution of looted art is a moral and political matter of course. Limitation of time doesn’t matter here. But are artefacts like the Pergamon Altar looted art? There are no documents proving the illegal export of the Altar. The findings were registered and brought abroad under the surveillance of the Ottoman authorities. Therefore, the Pergamon Altar does not fall under the facet of national heritage protection of illegal transfer of art. Undeniable is also the existence of a so called “irade”, an order of the Padisah, a high Ottoman official, where the sultan abstains from every right to the findings in Bergama in exchange for 20.000 Mark.

Does Turkey hold a claim according to international law to the Altar? The cultural agreements between Germany and Turkey hold no indications for such demands. Besides, the convention of the UNESCO from 17th November 1970 refers only to illegal transfers.

The only chance would be the clausula rebus sic stantibus. When the basic principle of a treaty is changed in an elementary way or the goal of it cannot be achieved any more, a participant is allowed to withdraw from the contract. But: Just because the common judicial conception changed and the new concept shall be used backwards, it is not possible to retreat. Furthermore, the contract is long ago closed and executed.

Even if the Altar should have been gained illegal, the international law knows the concept of adverse possession and long lasting toleration and out of that results forfeiture of the claim.

Basically, the Pergamon Altar is subject to the internationality of the cultural heritage of mankind. And the international protection of cultural heritage serves not only the interests of nations but first of all the interest of mankind, to make such artefacts accessible to everyone, irrespective of its original location.

Moreover,the question “Is the Pergamon Altar actually “Turkish” national heritage?” could be asked. After all, the Greeks had built it. So it is part of the ancient Hellenistic culture and the Turks, who arrived in Minor Asia only in the 11th century just found it there. But thereby it is not enough for the Greeks to claim the Altar as a product of their culture. In the end the Turks had preserved it for centuries. So in the end, the question whom the Pergamon Altar belongs to cannot be answered easily – if at all.

But does it make sense to give something so valuable like the Pergamon Altar back to a nation which says it acknowledges now the importance of its cultural heritage, but doesnot behave according to that? Just a few Turkish archaeologists dare to speak openly against how the Turkish government treats their historical sites. Among the most prominent sites is Allianoi, a Roman bath and spa complex in Izmir province, which was flooded in February 2011 on the orders of the government after the Yortanli dam was constructed.

“Allianoi was destroyed despite our efforts to save the baths. The government preferred profit over the preservation of such an important heritage site”, said Ahmet Yaras, an archaeologist at Thrace University towards The Guardian on 21st January 2013. Yaras, who leaded the efforts to save the archaeological site, has been refused a digging permit for the last years. He added: “It feels like I’m being punished by the Turkish government because I tried to save Allianoi.” The same fate as Allianoi struck Zeugma, an Hellenistic settlement in the south of Turkey. Hasankeyf, an ancient town and stronghold in southeastern Turkey, is awaiting it.

Katja Skokow


Update (March, 11th):

Tourism and Culture Minister Ömer Çelik brings forward new accusations:

German newspapers cover the story based upon an interview in the magazine “Der Spiegel”:

6 thoughts on “The Stumbling Block – How Turkey and Greece Try to Claim Back their Cultural Assets

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