Turkey’s Archaeological Treasures and the Place of Museums in National Narratives

Burcu Ozcelik

AFP Photo: Cem Turkel

The Museum of National Archaeology in Turkey houses one of the most impressive collections of antiquities in the Middle East, boasting around 800,000 artifacts in its inventory. Now, hundreds of objects from the museum, which resides in the Ottoman-era imperial mint complex, known as the Darphane, on the grounds of Istanbul’s Topkapi Palace, are being moved to two new warehouses dubbed “museum depots.” It isn’t clear, however, which artifacts will be moved or how many. Still, this has raised questions about the connection between the historical narrative of a nation and the care and display of the tangible history from its past.

News of the looming change of address stirred up a frenzy in the art history and museum worlds. The opposition media quickly branded it a “scandal,” reflecting the deep political divisions in the country that extend even to the handling of historical heritage. For example, control of the separate Topkapi Palace Museum was transferred to the National Palaces Administration under the office of the president in 2019, but the political opposition insists that authority should remain with the museum administration or the ministry of culture.

As to the move of the antiquities from Darphane, it is feared that they may be damaged or warehoused unsuitably at their new locations, which are far from the museum’s restoration facilities. One is a warehouse connected to the now-retired Ataturk International Airport; the other sits farther away on the Asian side of the Bosporus.

Turkey has experienced a bonanza of archaeological discoveries over the past few years. Last October alone, excavation unearthed an ancient temple dating back to the stone age, the tomb of the famous Greek astronomer Aratus and a Minoan-era harbor in the western coastline area of Didim. Earlier, thousands of other artifacts were discovered during the construction of mega infrastructure projects that began in 2004. During work on the tunnel for Istanbul’s high-speed Marmaray railway line, archaeologists found the ruins of a Byzantine church and footprints dating back to the neolithic age, among other marvels.

A large portion of the new discoveries have been stored in the Darphane site, placing what is claimed to have been a crippling burden on the old buildings – and hence at least one rationale for the move. But efforts to handle, move or restore ancient treasures have a chequered record in Turkey. In 2015, ancient Roman mosaics at the Archaeology Museum in the southern province of Hatay were damaged while being moved or restored. Last year, videos of men swinging sledge hammers at the restoration site of Istanbul’s Galata tower, built in the 14th century by the Genoese, went viral on social media.

The ministry of culture has tried to dispel fears about the exodus of material from the Darphane site. It says this is to protect the artifacts against potential natural disasters such as earthquakes, and to prepare new climate-controlled spaces for their display. But the criticism hasn’t died down: the Darphane complex was previously not publicly deemed an earthquake risk, and it is not clear if all the museum’s highly prized buildings in the Topkapi Palace will be returned to it or repurposed.

Museums in Turkey have gone through a renaissance in recent years. Fueled by government investment, curiosity about Turkey’s Ottoman legacy has cropped up considerably and marks a departure from when Turkish intellectuals were not as interested in the pre-republican era. Museums are also a aimed at attracting archaeology enthusiasts, historians of Islam and art-loving tourists to Istanbul. For example, a newly refurbished museum in Beykoz district now showcases the 800-year story of glasswork in the Anatolian heartland of Turkey, dating from the Seljuks to the Ottomans. The Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum in Istanbul houses a permanent collection of sacred relics, including old manuscripts and early copies of the Quran.

The politics of the museum as a public institution is notoriously contentious in most societies, throwing open grand debates about national identity and a people’s connection to their past. States in the Middle East are torn by the pull of history on one side and the desire for modernization on the other. Selective amnesia flirts with reinvention as societies negotiate how to memorialize their past. The particular histories of minorities or the dispossessed are brushed aside in the invention of foundational narratives that keep afloat the state project. Museums play an evolving, and not negligible, function in the march of history.

The museum as an institution centers on how history is understood. Playing up its Pharaonic past, Egypt in April transferred 22 recently discovered royal mummies to the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization in a boisterous parade across Cairo. Meanwhile Gulf countries are investing in state-of-the-art museums infused with themes of Arab futurism based on technological innovation.

The spat over the housing of archaeological artifacts in Turkey is part of a wider shift in the Middle East away from mirroring “Western” museum templates toward national debates about the functions and future of museums in societies marked by seismic demographic and socioeconomic change. But still, while questions over identity undoubtedly loom large, other more practical incentives include art tourism and prestige in the global culture industry. The established powerhouses of the region – cities like Cairo, Damascus and Baghdad – are giving way to new contenders such as Istanbul and Abu Dhabi.

Variations in the treatment of history aside, a common faith clearly has been placed in the region on local artists and national histories. What remains unchanged, however, is that museums are mediated spaces where decisions about national identity and state power are performed before our eyes.

 

Burcu Ozcelik is a research fellow and affiliated lecturer at Cambridge University.