Turkey vs. The Louvre: Ankara Renews Its Quest To Recover Antiquities

Reuniting the bust of Hercules with its body was one of the Culture Ministry's great successes
Reuniting the bust of Hercules with its body was one of the Culture Ministry's great successes
Guillaume Perrier

ISTANBUL – The treasure of Troy is back. The collection of golden jewelry from the ancient city, which had been stolen during the 19th century, was handed back to Turkey by the University of Pennsylvania last September.

The precious jewelry – known as the “Troy gold” – had been looted after the first excavations of Troy by a German archeologist in the 1870s. No one knows if Helen of Troy actually wore the jewels, but Turkey says it belongs to them. “It is only right that they be returned to where they were taken from,” declared Minister of Culture and Tourism Ertugrul Gunay.

These jewels are now set to be displayed in Ankara.

In December, the great Istanbul Archaeology Museum celebrated the return of a mosaic from 194 A.D., depicting Greek hero Orpheus playing the lyre to calm wild animals. It was stolen in 1998 in Urfa (in ancient times Edessa), near the Syrian border. The mosaic had been auctioned at Christie’s in New York, and bought by the Dallas Art Museum for $85,000.

With those wonders from Asia Minor (current Turkey) more than 3,700 artifacts – statues, frescos, pots, tools and coins – have been recovered since 2007, thanks to an unprecedented campaign led by the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism.

The 3,000 year-old Hattusa sphinx, removed from the Hittite imperial city located in the middle of Anatolia, which was on display at Berlin's Pergamon Museum, also made the trip home recently.

But the most spectacular restitution was a bust of Hercules, handed back by the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. It was stolen in 1980 on the site of Perga and sold the next year to the American museum. The bust flew back to Turkey on Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s plane – who was returning home after the 2011 UN general assembly.

“Turkey had been campaigning for the marble’s return for the past two decades,” he declared, triumphant, as he landed in Ankara. The bust of Hercules could finally be reunited with the rest of his body, on display at the Antalya Museum in southwestern Turkey.

Challenging the museums in court

The Turkish government’s decades-long struggle to recover stolen artifacts has brought a certain number of museums to their knees. But other museums believe the artifacts belong to them, and are refusing to negotiate. This is the case of Paris’ Louvre Museum, whose Islamic wing holds a wall of Ottoman Iznik ceramic tites that Ankara says were stolen from the Istanbul Piyale Pacha Mosque by a French collector. But the Parisian museum argues the tiles were acquired legally.

The Louvre also has 16th century ceramic tiles that were taken from Sultan Selim II’s tomb in the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. However, the UNESCO convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property was signed in 1970 and doesn’t apply to acquisitions made before that date.

This argument is inconceivable for Murat Suslu, the director of museums for the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism: “What if the Turks came, took a stained glass window from Notre-Dame in the 19th century to renovate it and now refused to give it back?”

Priam’s treasure remains on display at Moscow’s Pushkin Museum. To get uncooperative countries to hand back their ancient artifacts, Turkey doesn’t hesitate to threaten them with cancelling archeological concessions (especially Germany and France), something these countries call tantamount to blackmail.

Turkey has also tried going to court to get its artifacts back. An Istanbul lawyer recently filed a claim with the European Court of Human Rights, in a bid to recover statues taken from the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus and currently on display at the British Museum.

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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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