Edmond Y. Azadian
Since Fatih Sultan Mohammed occupied Constantinople in 1453, the Ottoman rulers have been destroying and desecrating churches, castles, architectural monuments of Hittites, Armenians, Assyrians, Greeks and other nationalities who had been the indigenous people of Asia Minor, occupied and ruled through blood and sword.
Now, all of a sudden, the destroyers of all these cultures presume to be landlords, claiming treasures originated in Asia Minor to be returned to the present government of Turkey. Those artifacts and treasures which have been preserved in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Getty Museum, the Louvre and Pergamon Museum have been saved from the Turks themselves, becoming part of the legacy of human civilization. Had they been left in the hands of the Turks, they would have been doomed to suffer the same fate as the 2,000 Armenian churches, monasteries and architectural monuments which were systematically destroyed and rendered into ashes. After 200,000 Armenians escaped from Van in 1915, the Turkish Army burned tens of thousands of illuminated manuscripts and Bibles on the island monastery of Leem in Lake Akhtamar.
All that barbarism was tolerated and permitted by the Western powers because of political expediency, fueling the arrogance of the Turks, in turn, to get back at the West, which had saved antiquities from Turkish-Ottoman plundering hands in the first place.
The latest example was the destruction of thousands of khachkars in Jugha, Nakhichevan, now an exclave ruled by Azerbaijan, by the Azeri Turks in broad daylight; not one finger was raised by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) or other agencies or governments despite protests by Armenia’s government.
Also, in a cynical condescension towards small nations, the British Museum and other museums stubbornly keep mislabeling Kutahya tiles or the head of Diana (Anahid, “The Satala Aphrodite,”) as Seljuk art or any other label in the name of academic propriety, rather than ascribing it to the Armenian talents and skills which are the true creators of those treasures.
As late as this year, UNESCO refused to label Armenian architectural monuments in Europe their true name during an exhibition, giving in to Turkish threats. That policy today has opened up the major museums in the West to Turkish threats and lawsuits.
In a front-page article on October 1, the New York Times covers Turkish arrogance under the title “Turkey Demands Return of Art, Alarming World’s Museums.” Museum curators consider Turkey’s newfound aggressiveness “cultural blackmail.”
At issue are many art treasures originating in the countries occupied by Ottoman rulers. Mr. Murat Suslu, director-general of cultural heritage and museums, says, “we only want back what is rightfully ours.”
“The Turks are engaging in polemics and nasty politics,” answers Hermann Parzinger, president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage
Foundation, which oversees the Pergamon in Berlin. “They should be careful about making moral claims when their museums are full of looted treasures.”
One example of such looted treasures is a sarcophagus named after Alexander the Great, which was discovered in Sidon, Lebanon, in 1887, and is now in Istanbul’s Archeological Museum. According to Mr. Suslu the sarcophagus was legally Turkey’s because it had been excavated on territory that belonged to Turkey at the time.
With the same warped logic, Turkey can claim all the Armenian churches and art treasures in Jerusalem, because at one time Jerusalem was under Ottoman rule.
There are no firm international laws that govern the ownership of art treasures originating from different parts of the world which are now preserved in museums in the West. There is a UNESCO convention that allows museums to acquire objects that were outside their countries of origin before 1970.
Turkey wants its cake and to eat it. Although it has ratified the convention in 1981, it still cites a 1906 Ottoman law to claim any object removed after that date as its own.
Since Turkey selectively wishes to use its Ottoman heritage, than it has to recognize the Ottoman Genocide against the Armenians, which not only destroyed millions of human lives but also the cultural heritage of that subject nation.
Turkey, using its double standard, has been successfully suing Western museums and retrieving major pieces of art for its own museums.
For example, in 2011, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston returned the top half of an 1,800-year-old statute, “Weary Herakles,” which is an example of Greek cultural heritage.
Throughout history, the Turks have not been known as creators in the fields of art and culture; they are rather known as destroyers of culture, valuing militarism and brute force. But since they have realized belatedly that art and culture have some monetary value in the form of tourism in their country, they are aggressively going after treasures originating in the land they presently occupy.
This is a dangerous precedent. If it is not stopped in its track, the Turks may go after all Armenian treasures around the world, claiming by the same logic and citing the Ottoman law that those works had originated in territories under Ottoman rule.
Especially in Turkey’s case, UNESCO and the UN have to declare the universal ownership of treasures created by Armenians and other nationalities but occupied or looted by the Turks. Turkey must be held accountable for the destruction of Armenian cultural monuments on its occupied soil which to this day are kept in ruins. Those ancient churches and monuments that belong to the Armenians must be declared part of human civilization and thus warrant some protection from further damage.
Otherwise, looters and plunderers will present themselves as owners of a cultural heritage, which does not belong to them and which has been abused by them for centuries.
The irony is that the looters have become landlords under the tolerant gaze of the civilized world which is delinquent in its duty of preserving universal treasures of humanity.