Turkey is home to several civilizations that have all left their marks on the land. Consequently, historic artifact smuggling has always been a bane for the country.

With an abundance of historical sites, Turkey has countless antiquities buried underground, making the country a hotspot for excavators.  Like many origin countries, Turkey has undertaken the struggle against illegal excavations and artefact smuggling and is striving to repatriate its historical and cultural heritage. Nevertheless, this is not an easy task.

In the 19th century, established museums like the British, Metropolitan, and Louvre began taking in artefacts from around the world. 

“The extractions of some artefacts took place before legislation regarding the ownership and protection of historic artefacts had taken effect, but some were extracted even after legislation had been issued,” said Prof. Dr. Kutalmis Gorkay from Turkey’s Ankara University in an interview with TRT World.

In a global trend, archaeologists from Western nations would visit countries with rich cultural heritages, lead excavations, and leave with their findings. Many artefacts were removed before preventive measures could take effect. Turkey's artefacts landed in several Western countries because of the same trend.  

A piece of the five-piece Sidamara Sarcophagus that was stolen after its discovery in the 1980s. It was repatriated from the UK in February 2020 and is currently displayed in the Museum of Anatolian Civilisations, Ankara.
A piece of the five-piece Sidamara Sarcophagus that was stolen after its discovery in the 1980s. It was repatriated from the UK in February 2020 and is currently displayed in the Museum of Anatolian Civilisations, Ankara. (General Directorate for Cultural Heritage and Museums)

The backstory

The first legislation about historical artifacts on Turkish land was the 1906 Law of Antiquities of the Ottoman Empire. It was put into effect by Osman Hamdi Bey, the founder of Turkish museology. This law asserted that historical artifacts were in the ownership of the state and prohibited the transit of cultural heritages abroad.

“Turkey has never been passive when it came to the repatriation of cultural heritage. But we became stronger and more assertive as global awareness increased,” Zeynep Boz, the head of the anti-smuggling department of the Turkish General Directorate for Cultural Heritage and Museums, told TRT World.  

After the First World War, with colonial territories gaining their independence, origin countries began to demand repatriation. Treaties were drafted in the League of Nations, but they never came into effect. As a result, a hiatus took place with the Second World War.

“After the war, a true awakening began in the 1950s,” said Boz. With the UN and UNESCO becoming active on the issue of cultural heritage, the fight for the protection of historic artifacts and their repatriation was reinvigorated.

The 1,700 year-old Cybele Statue from Sideropolis, an ancient city in Anatolia, was smuggled during the 1960s. It was seized in the US and repatriated in December 2020. The statue is currently displayed in the Istanbul Archaeological Museums.
The 1,700 year-old Cybele Statue from Sideropolis, an ancient city in Anatolia, was smuggled during the 1960s. It was seized in the US and repatriated in December 2020. The statue is currently displayed in the Istanbul Archaeological Museums. (General Directorate for Cultural Heritage and Museums)

Turkey’s first efforts at repatriation were led by Halil Ethem Eldem, the brother of Osman Hamdi Bey, in the 1920s. He was the director of the predecessor of today’s Istanbul Archaeological Museums and initiated repatriation efforts. The first repatriated artifacts were from the Metropolitan Museum in the US. These artifacts had their provenance as Sardis, the capital of the ancient Kingdom of Lydia in Western Anatolia.

Germany also led several excavations during the Ottoman Era. German archaeologists had taken approximately ten thousand artifacts for restoration and documentation but did not return them. Halil Ethem Bey began their repatriation process and had most of them returned.

One of the artifacts he had initiated the repatriation process for, the Bogazkoy Sphinx, was returned 98 years later in 2011. “It was a great honour for us to finish what he started. But this case alone shows how challenging it is to regain these artifacts once they are taken abroad and put in a museum,” said Boz.

The Bogazkoy Sphinx from Hattusa, the capital of the Hittite Empire, on display at the Bogazkoy Museum in Corum, Turkey.
The Bogazkoy Sphinx from Hattusa, the capital of the Hittite Empire, on display at the Bogazkoy Museum in Corum, Turkey. (General Directorate for Cultural Heritage and Museums)

Moreover, it’s not just archaeologists that dug and removed artifacts. “Some people walk around with detectors to find artifacts, while some engage in organised crime,” said Gorkay from Ankara University. 

“People think they are treasure hunting, but really they are harming cultural heritage”. 

The anti-smuggling department has developed both bottom-up and top-down approaches in the fight to protect Turkey’s cultural heritage. The former is about educating the people, while the latter focuses on the big picture strategy like bilateral deals to prevent smuggling and the repatriation process. 

Preventive measures, aside from penalties, include campaigns that aim to increase awareness in the Turkish population about how individuals could help protect the cultural heritage.

There are also bilateral agreements with destination countries the artifacts are usually taken to. For example, in January 2021, an agreement was made with the US, the biggest market for smuggled historic artifacts. The agreement made the entry of smuggled Turkish artifacts to the US illegal. There is also an agreement with Germany.

The Lydia Tablet was removed from the Apollo Aksyros Temple of the ancient city Setae in Turkey's Manisa. The artifact was found in  Italy in 1997 and repatriated in September 2020. It is now on display in the Museum of Anatolian Civilisations, Ankara.
The Lydia Tablet was removed from the Apollo Aksyros Temple of the ancient city Setae in Turkey's Manisa. The artifact was found in Italy in 1997 and repatriated in September 2020. It is now on display in the Museum of Anatolian Civilisations, Ankara. (General Directorate for Cultural Heritage and Museums)


Historic artefact smuggling, in most cases, takes place as an organized crime. Smuggling artefacts is often a means to launder money, and even the artefacts themselves can be laundered via auctions.

“When we fight for our cultural heritage, we are also fighting against crime. We are after each and every artefact that we believe was smuggled,” Boz said.

Documentation is an essential part of the job. Once an artefact that was possibly extracted from Turkey is spotted in an auction catalogue, the first step is checking the Interpol database. Every artefact that is assumed to be stolen is logged there.

If the artefact is in the database, repatriation is relatively smooth even if it gets placed in a collection or museum. The ministry gets in touch with related offices at home and abroad to seize the artefact, then have it returned home. The primary goal is actually to seize the artefact while in transit.

The Sarcophagus of Heracles from the ancient city of Perga was seized in Switzerland and repatriated in September 2017. It is currently on display in the Antalya Museum.
The Sarcophagus of Heracles from the ancient city of Perga was seized in Switzerland and repatriated in September 2017. It is currently on display in the Antalya Museum. (General Directorate for Cultural Heritage and Museums)

Twelve Zeugma mosaics

The most meticulous work takes place if the artefact is not in the Interpol database because this means the artefact was smuggled by means of illegal excavations and requires extensive research that will prove the artefact’s origin.

Each physical quality of an artefact, from the details of craftsmanship to the colours that were used, is a hint about its origins. Other artefacts with similar or identical qualities and information about illegal excavations are also valuable indicators of provenance.

Based on these analyses, reports are prepared and sent to related authorities. With enough evidence, the artefact is repatriated. Otherwise, the inquiries about its history and ownership continue.

Another repatriation strategy of Turkey is to initiate talks with museums that request to loan artefacts for exhibitions. It is a win-win strategy that has proved to be useful on several occasions.

Troy Gold repatriated from the Penn Museum in exchange for an exhibit about Gordion, capital of the ancient Kingdom of Phrygia.
Troy Gold repatriated from the Penn Museum in exchange for an exhibit about Gordion, capital of the ancient Kingdom of Phrygia. (General Directorate for Cultural Heritage and Museums)

Often, when origin countries request repatriation of artefacts from established museums, they are met with an offer to receive replicas. “But why should we have to exhibit replicas in the homeland of these artefacts? If anything, the artefacts should be repatriated and the replicas should be exhibited abroad,” said Boz.

That was the exact strategy that the directorate utilized to repatriate twelve Zeugma mosaics from the Bowling Green State University, US.

Zeugma is an ancient city of the Kingdom of Commagene, located in the Southeastern Anatolia Region of Turkey. It is home to Hellenistic and Roman era artefacts including the infamous "Gypsy (Maenad) Girl". She was in the largest triclinium of Zeugma’s House of Maenads, named after the Maenads depicted on its mosaic panels. The tesseras were the colourful stones of the Euphrates valley.

The mosaics in Bowling Green were believed to be from the House of Maenads. In return for the repatriation of these artefacts, Turkey offered the university replicas that would be made by the craftsmen of Gaziantep, with stones from the Euphrates valley. “We provided them with exquisite artworks in exchange for our cultural heritage. Everyone won,” said Boz.

One of the mosaics that were returned to Zeugma, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
One of the mosaics that were returned to Zeugma, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. (General Directorate for Cultural Heritage and Museums)

Professor Gorkay, the head of excavations in Zeugma, initiated the repatriation of these artifacts. He was notified by archaeologist Rebecca Molholt that the provenance of the mosaics in Bowling Green was most likely Zeugma, and began working on their repatriation with the directorate in 2012.

It was clear that the mosaics were from the Euphrates valley because their tesserae had the same colour spectrum. However, the Euphrates also ran through Syria, and almost identical mosaics were also found in northern Syria.

To prove their origin as Zeugma, Gorkay took on the challenge of photoshopping the mosaics on the panel they were removed from, like the pieces of a puzzle. They also analysed the plaster on the mosaics, which matched the plaster used in Zeugma.

Examinations verified that the twelve mosaic panels were indeed from the grand triclinium in the House of Maenads. The artifacts were repatriated in 2018 and can be found in the Zeugma Mosaic Museum in Gaziantep.

A mosaic from the House of Maenads depicting a satyr, repatriated from Bowling Green.
A mosaic from the House of Maenads depicting a satyr, repatriated from Bowling Green. (General Directorate for Cultural Heritage and Museums)

On the other hand, Ottoman-era tiles that once adorned Hagia Sophia are displayed in the Louvre Museum while replicas occupy their original place. The tiles were removed in the late 19th century for restoration, and the originals never returned. Turkey has been trying to recover these artifacts.

Commenting on the French policy regarding the repatriation of artifacts seized from colonies, Boz said “We support France in this endeavour and think this policy should be extended to all countries of origin. Our artifacts are displaced as well and should be returned home.”

The tiles on the Mausoleum of Ottoman Sultan Selim II, Hagia Sophia, Istanbul.
The tiles on the Mausoleum of Ottoman Sultan Selim II, Hagia Sophia, Istanbul. (General Directorate for Cultural Heritage and Museums)

A defence that Western nations often put forward in resisting repatriation is that origin countries cannot take proper care of their artifacts. “It is an imperialist way of thinking. They are undermining the origin countries and trying to end the discussion before it begins,” Boz said.

This narrative is a means to justify the retention of artifacts. However, as museums and collections continue to keep and purchase such artifacts, the supply will also continue using illegal excavations and smuggling. Thus, they become accessories to a crime.

“In bilateral talks with the US about Turkey’s cultural heritage, they referred to our case as exemplary and an agreement was achieved with ease. I think this shows very well that we take good care of our artifacts,” said Boz.

Turkey’s approach to repatriating cultural heritage prioritises peaceful means as culture is seen as a platform for peace and cooperation.

Bronze Age Troy Gold repatriated from the Penn Museum. The artifacts are currently on display in the Troy Museum, Canakkale, Turkey.
Bronze Age Troy Gold repatriated from the Penn Museum. The artifacts are currently on display in the Troy Museum, Canakkale, Turkey. (General Directorate for Cultural Heritage and Museums)

“Western nations are unaware of the implications of having a country that is an open-air museum in and of itself,” said Boz. 

Turkey is home to approximately 127 thousand verified historic sites. For over a million years, people have settled within the confines of modern-day Turkey and left their traces.

“Encyclopaedic museums profess they are available for people worldwide. That is true, only if I have the means to travel thousands of kilometres and stay in your country to see my cultural heritage,” Boz said.

Moreover, removing artifacts from their context hinders scientific progress. It prevents scientists from seeing the big picture as removing one piece from a site can prevent correct scientific analysis. And the artifacts lose scientific value, becoming reduced to mere objects.

“Global conditions were in line with the extraction of historic artifacts and their arrival in the West in the 19th century. But there has been a change in circumstances. In the modern World, it has become increasingly clear that the artifacts belong in their places of origin. Artifacts should be repatriated to their own context,” said Gorkay.

Source: TRT World