Western ‘collectors’ fuel illegal antiquities trade in Turkey

Ensuring Socio-economic Justice

Yusuf Progler

Ramadan 28, 1419 1999-01-16

Special Reports

by Yusuf Progler (Special Reports, Crescent International Vol. 27, No. 22, Ramadan, 1419)

To casual observers, the Turkish tourist industry may appear to be somewhat harmless and only superficially damaging to Islamic culture in Turkey. But this is facile and misleading. Tourism brings with it more insidious, and clearly damaging, trends. For example, western ‘art collectors’ often scour Turkish markets for rare and fine pieces, which they are able to buy in places that use the tourist industry as a front for illegal trade in antiquities. Although it is technically illegal to sell Ottoman antiquities in Turkey, the high prices they bring in the west make this a tempting and lucrative trade for unscrupulous buyers and sellers, who do not think twice from making a fortune on the shards and scraps of the great Ottoman Islamic civilization.

Sitting back and puffing on his American-brand cigarette, Orhan Alpas reflects on his trade. ‘Japanese tourists are among our best customers,’ he says while reaching back to turn down the rock music blaring from a boombox behind his desk. ‘And they especially value the old calligraphic pieces, since calligraphy is an important part of their culture.’ Mr. Alpas is the proprietor of Orhan Kitapevi, an antiquarian bookshop in the Sahaflar Bazaar near the Beyazit mosque in Old Istanbul.

In addition to purchasing new pieces produced for the tourist industry, such as reproductions of calligraphy and miniature paintings, selected customers can also find rarer, and more controversial, pieces, such as pages from old copies of the Qur’an or even completely intact Ottoman or Anatolian Qur’ans.

Today, Mr. Alpas is negotiating with a ‘collector’ from Britain, who is interested in some ‘authentic’ Islamic art, something a cut above the tourist fare hanging from the walls of Orhan Kitapevi. Not to disappoint, Alpas produces three Anatolian Qur’ans, intact and whole, and an array of individual Qur’anic pages that have been removed from their original bindings and framed to be sold piecemeal. With a little polite haggling, the collector buys one of the pieces for US$800, a fairly austere looking but well-used medium sized 19th century Anatolian Qur’an.

Passing up on two smaller Qur’ans, for which Mr. Alpas was asking US$400 apiece, the collector then leans in close, ‘can you get something rarer, something older, more ornate, more collectable?’ Alpas smiles and then replies, ‘Yes, but for something like that I will need funds in advance, for up to US$10,000.’ The collector nods, and Alpas adds, ‘Although it is possible to get them, I cannot keep pieces like this on hand, because they require such a high capital investment.’

‘When Orhan Alpas gets his money, he will likely do one of two things,’ says Murat, a Turkish journalist. ‘He will either pay someone to steal a Qur’an from the waqf of an unsuspecting Anatolian village mosque, or he will pay a poor family to part with an heirloom.’ In either case, the customer gets his relic, Alpas gets his money, and the Islamic heritage of Turkey gets ripped off.

In November, the Anatolian News Agency reported that a rare copy of the Qur’an, a priceless 800-year old handwritten edition, was stolen from the Salih Agha mosque in Aksaray, a central Anatolian city near Konya. It will no doubt make its way into the western markets. While some collectors will keep such works in their private collections, others may become dealers.

A shrewd buyer of stolen pieces can make his money back many times over, if he unbinds a Qur’an and sells each page as a separate and distinct, smartly framed, ‘work of art.’ Such items turn up all the time in western museums and in prestigious auction houses like Sotheby’s or Christie’s.

Halil, an Istanbul carpet man and dealer of new Islamic art, says part of the problem in preventing thievery of the Turkish Islamic heritage is the government’s disinterest. ‘The government spends more time and effort protecting Byzantine and other Christian antiquities than it does preserving Islamic cultural artifacts. For instance,’ Halil continues, ‘it took master architect Sinan only seven years to build the Sultan Ahmet mosque,’ referring to the 400-year old masterpiece of Islamic art in Istanbul, ‘yet the government is taking over 20 years to complete some much needed restoration work on it.’ However, observers agree that as public awareness of theft and neglect increases, the Turkish government may be forced to act to protect its heritage.

The Turkish National Archive of the Ottoman Empire had been targeted by western collectors, but the Archive has recently gotten some bad publicity when reports surfaced that over 70 percent of its 150 million documents were either damaged or ‘lost.’ This led State minister Yucel Seckiner to announce that the entire archive will be transferred into a computer database, to help preserve the 600-year history contained therein.

In addition to being damaged by heat and humidity, Ottoman documents often just disappear, only to turn up later in private collections. Seckiner cited one case in which several irreplaceable Ottoman-Tartar documents were sold to American collectors.

Western looting of the national heritage in Muslim countries is not limited to Turkey, though Istanbul does seem to be a point through which stolen items pass. In October, Turkish authorities confiscated a cache of relics that Iraqi soldiers stole from a Kuwaiti museum during the Gulf War, and which were smuggled through Iraq and Turkey to be sold in western markets.

The Gulf War also led to the devastation of Iraq’s national heritage, beginning with American bombing raids that targeted museums, and continuing with looting and theft of artifacts. One Babylonian piece sold in Germany for US$80,000, reported to be an astronomical price, which some observers see as an enticement to encourage Iraqis to loot their own heritage for sale in the western markets, in order to generate much needed income for food and other scarce necessities due to American sanctions.

Perhaps the various political, economic, and educational problems that plague Turkey, and other Muslim countries, are more important than worrying about things like western tourism, or a few lost documents or pieces of art, or some old Anatolian Qur’ans. But ignoring such things is a mistake, and indicates the narrow thinking that leads to dependency on the west. As one New York carpet dealer, an Iranian Jew in exile, reminds us, ‘all of the best and oldest Persian carpets are not in Iran. They are here, in my shop, and others like it in New York, London, and Paris.’

The reason is simple: during the Islamic revolution, and the imposed war with Iraq, Iran’s heritage as embodied in its carpet antiquities, was smuggled out by the ton, and continues to fetch high prices in western markets. Similar stories could be told about Muslim rulers, like the Shah and his cohorts, or people like Sadat, all of whom gave away their national heritage to western museums and collectors. In fact, western institutions are filled with all sorts of ill-gotten ‘acquisitions.’

The illegal trade in Qur’ans and other antiquities in Turkey is symptomatic of broader political and economic weaknesses, and reveals yet another insult to Islamic civilization by the west, which thinks it can buy, lie, steal, and brag its way into even the most sacred corners of Muslim history and culture. It is dangerous to ignore these examples of western imperialism, as it is precisely such creeping and insidious aspects of neo-colonialism, and their concomitant industries like tourism, that often do the most irreparable and lasting damage.

Political and economic liberation of the Muslim world will come one day soon, insha’Allah, but if they are not careful now, the newly independent Muslim States may find themselves without their ancient Islamic heritage, nor even the ability to study and enjoy their own history and culture, if it has all been sold off to tourists and collectors, or otherwise modified and transmogrified to suit the whims of the west.

Muslimedia: January 16-31, 1999

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