BY HARUT SASSOUNIAN
Earlier this year, I wrote a column describing the Turkish government’s bullying tactics to reclaim antique objects from European and American museums. It is ironic that Turkey, one of the greatest looters and pilferers of other nations’ cultural heritage, would so aggressively demand the return of these antiquities.
Just in case its threats fail to work, Turkey embarked on a new course of action last month — bribery! Turkish Education Minister Nabi Avci announced on November 10: “Turkey has doubled its contribution to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) amid the financial crisis it faces with the United States and Israel not paying their membership fees.”
Minister Avci did not even attempt to hide the real reason for Turkey’s generosity. He disclosed that “significant progress has been made in Turkey’s candidacy for the UNESCO World Heritage Committee elections to be held on November 19.” Indeed, the Turkish Minister’s prediction came true when his country was elected to the 21-member World Heritage Committee for the next four years.
The Turkish Foreign Ministry immediately announced that as a member of that Committee, “Turkey intends to share, at the international scale, the experience and knowledge it has accumulated in managing and protecting its own 11 world heritage areas representing different layers of Anatolian civilization, including Neolithic, Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, Seljuk and Ottoman periods.”
Electing Turkey to a body that is supposed to preserve cultural assets is akin to putting a wolf in charge of guarding sheep. Turkey should not be eligible to serve on the UNESCO committee or on any other UN agency because of its long record as a major violator of human rights and the hegemonic threat it presents to the peace and security of neighboring states.
Not surprisingly, the Foreign Ministry’s announcement made no mention of the numerous Armenian religious and cultural monuments in present-day Turkey. Only in recent years, with the intent of easing the way for its European Union candidacy as well as generating income from foreign tourists, the Turkish government has renovated a handful of Armenian and Greek churches, after decades of neglect and systematic desecration and destruction.
Now that Turkey has undeservedly become a member of the World Heritage Committee, Armenia’s UNESCO representative has the opportunity during each meeting for the next four years to point out the irony Turkey faces — tasked with preserving cultural monuments, while remaining one of the biggest confiscators of other nations’ cultural heritage.
Murat Suslu, Turkey’s director-general of cultural heritage and museums, told the New York Times with a straight face: “We only want back what is rightfully ours…. If you come to my house and you steal precious objects from me, do I not have the right to get them back?” Mr. Suslu, who insisted that thievery and looting are wrong no matter when they occurred, must be reminded that Turkey can make such claims only after returning to Alevis, Arabs, Armenians, Assyrians, Cypriots, Greeks, and Kurds, what is rightfully theirs!
Just as ironic was the statement made by Ertugrul Gunay, Turkey’s Culture Minister, to the Economist magazine: “I wholeheartedly believe that each and every antiquity in any part of the world should eventually go back to its homeland. Even if these objects are made of stone, just as people have souls, so do animals, plants and monuments. Taking a monument away destabilizes the world and is disrespectful to history.”
Instead of falsely presenting their country as a looting victim, Turkish officials should acknowledge that they are in possession of numerous antiquities confiscated by their Ottoman predecessors while occupying over a dozen neighboring countries. For example, the sarcophagus of Alexander the Great, discovered near Sidon, Lebanon in 1887, was shipped to Istanbul’s Archaeology Museum under orders from Sultan Abdul Hamid II, where it is still kept as one of its most prized possessions. It’s now up to Lebanon to demand the return of this precious cultural treasure from Turkey! Also, Saudi Arabia has the right to reclaim a plethora of sacred Islamic relics removed from Mecca by the Ottoman authorities in the 19th century.
Turkey’s membership in UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee provides a unique opportunity for Armenians and other dispossessed nations to draw the world’s attention to the Turkish government’s illegal confiscation of their cultural heritage and demand their immediate return.