Building frenzy devouring Turkish archaeological legacy

Building frenzy devouring Turkish archaeological legacy

ISTANBUL – Hürriyet Daily News
Building frenzy devouring Turkish archaeological legacy

“The Neolithic age is a period which registered many firsts, be it in art, economy and architecture – everything that made us in 12,000 years. We understand that the most important centers of this age used to be in our region,” says Nezih Başgelen. DAILY NEWS photos, Emrah GÜREL

Turkey’s helter-skelter drive to pave the country in concrete could sound the death knell for the nation’s priceless archaeological heritage, according to archaeological specialist Nezih Başgelen.

They are dynamiting everywhere. Work machines are working like a bull in a china shop,” he recently told the Hürriyet Daily News. “We are losing our archaeological repositories while constructing damns, highways and factories.”

How do you evaluate Turkey’s archaeological heritage? 

The region in which we live has hosted many civilizations which shaped humanity from the early ages on. Many know Çatalhöyük [in the Central Anatolian province of Konya] but the discoveries in Göbeklitepe [in the southeastern province of Şanlıurfa] have now become the focus of the world which is challenging some of the information we used to have. At a time when we thought not much was done in terms of architecture, this site near Şanlıurfa, for instance, harbors extraordinary settlements. It has such richness that it opens the doors to new discoveries in archaeology. 

The Neolithic age is a period which registered many firsts, be it in art, economy and architecture – everything that made us in 12,000 years. And we understand that the most important centers of this age used to be in our region. The EU’s scientific institutions have discovered very interesting findings in Neolithic excavations. The findings show that the genetic source of humanity, as well as animal breeds, is in Anatolia. The BEAN [Bridging the European and Anatolian Neolithic] project works on that issue.

Are we in Turkey aware of our archaeological richness?

No we are not. Our sensitivity to historical protection is very weak. The only exception was the period when Ertuğrul Günay was the minister for tourism and culture [immediately preceding current Minister Ömer Çelik]. The period when Günay, who had a genuine interest in archaeology, headed the ministry was out of the ordinary. He expended great efforts to alter what was going wrong. Since he left office, everything has stopped, excavations have slowed down, restoration works have been stalling. 

How would you describe the fundamental problem in the current situation?

We are in a very critical process. The fear of a shortfall in the energy supply leads us to use classical ways of energy generation rather than developing alternative energy sources. The outcome is that all of Turkey’s topography is being plundered. There are already 2,000 hydroelectric power stations and the aim is to have thousands more.

And this is detrimental for archaeological heritage as well.

Archaeology is one of the most important guides in life for us. It teaches us the living experience of humanity. If humanity wants to go forward with the right vision, it needs to know the past, and this is what archaeology is providing us. 

We also have a prime minister that called archaeological findings “stuff” that should not prevent the construction new roads and bridges.

I think he is being misled. The government in Turkey has come up with extraordinary accomplishments in the past 10 years. A different economic picture has emerged. But while they gave priority to development, they ignored the protection of our cultural, archaeological and environmental values. Let’s have fast development, but the bill we have to pay should not be the extermination of these values.

Is Turkey’s archaeological heritage at risk of destruction?

Of course; I have plenty of examples. There are very important drawings engraved in rocks around Bafa Lake [in western Anatolia]. We know there are 1,100 of them at 120 locations. But quarries are turning them into shambles. Our archaeological legacy is falling victim to development.

Some 55,000 quarries entail the destruction of history. No one is against this country’s development, but we could have done it with a minimum of damage. We have always suggested doing planning with experts. But there is a crazy mentality of laissez-faire, laissez-passer. Licenses are being obtained with environmental impact reports that are very dubious.

What is the situation on the existing excavations? 

The new generation of Turkish archaeologists is very successful. They can be very good if they are supported. But unfortunately, they are bogged down in red tape. 

So a decade ago, the most important challenge was the preservation of archaeological findings; now it seems unearthed archaeological sites are in danger.

I cannot [understate] the amount of damage that is being done. They are dynamiting everywhere. Work machines are working like a bull in a china shop. No tumulus is left in the Thracian region. We are losing our archaeological repositories while constructing damns, highways and factories. 

And yet how do you find the awareness and sensitivity levels in the society?

The awareness is growing fast. Civil society is very active. They organize campaigns, they are objecting to construction plans. But the forces they are facing are backed by Ankara, and that’s why their awareness does not bring results. But this is going to a big boiling point in society. Society is boiling inside, and what we saw with the Gezi Park events we see in Anatolia. Several villages are rising up.

But that was not the case in the past. The locals used to call archaeological artifacts as “just some stones.” 

That’s right, but this has now been reversed. Locals have become the biggest environmentalists. 

How are we in terms of safeguarding the findings from excavations?

Very bad. All our depots are full [of archaeological artifacts]. Our museums don’t have the mentality of running a contemporary museum. Some of the showcases are renewed but there is nothing behind in terms of research. We built museums but we think it is only about exposure. A new museum was built in Gaziantep, the Zeugma Museum. It has an extraordinary opportunity to display things. But there is no place for experts to work. In European museums, there is a whole network with libraries and laboratories at the back, where more scientific work is done.
Recently, the U.S. consul general expressed resentment, saying Istanbul’s history did not start in 1453 with the conquest of the city by the Ottomans.

We have a hypocritical situation in Istanbul. On the one hand, we talk about tolerance, but on the other hand, we allocate resources to one side while neglecting the other side. Some of the monasteries are in a desperate situation in the city. We might feel closer to Ottoman heritage but we need to have a neutral look at Istanbul. This is a world legacy left to us. 

What is your take on the restoration projects?

[They’re] very bad. Restoration in Turkey equals paid depredation. There is no way restoration done by contractors can be successful. They have no experience. In the West, even the simple worker has a document showing his experience. In Turkey, they win the bid and start doing restoration using the cheapest material with the most inexperienced personnel. This is what has been happening for the past 10 years ever since financing was found, as 10 percent of real estate taxes are allocated to restoration and reconstruction. We need to keep contractors away from restoration. While many are becoming rich, we are losing Turkey’s cultural inventory.


Nezih Başgelen was born in Istanbul in 1958 and is the publisher of Turkey’s first magazine on archeology, “Art and Archeology Magazine,” which has been published since 1978. He founded the Archeology and Art Publishing house in 1982, which has published numerous catalogues and research papers on ancient civilizations in Anatolia. 

In 1986, Başgelen established the Celsus Picture library, a visual documentary archive of this historic and touristic richness. He has been photographing Turkey’s archeological potential while also gathering together old books and maps.

Overall, he has published a total of around 1,000 works on archeology, art history, tourism and historic and environmental protection. He also started a project of educational painting Books to familiarize children with archeology.