Pandemic led treasure hunters to carry out illegal excavations
As Turkey’s rich legacy of civilizations attracts amateur and professional treasure hunters, historical sites and areas believed to contain “treasures” from past civilizations were raided illegally, especially during the pandemic despite the security measures.
Curfews and lockdowns imposed to prevent the spread of COVID-19 disease have led many treasure hunters to carry out illegal excavations across the country, damaging the thousands of years old historical heritage of Anatolia.
According to the data obtained by daily Milliyet from the Culture and Tourism Ministry, some 3,365 illegal excavations were carried out across the country in the last two years, a period when human mobility was restricted due to the pandemic.
A 1,000-year-old sarcophagus, which is believed to be from the Byzantine or Seljuk period in the Central Anatolian province of Afyon, became the latest victim of illegal treasure hunters, as fortune seekers caused significant damage to a 25-meter-long passage where the artifact lies.
The destruction of holy places in different regions of Turkey has also been increasing with treasure hunters eyeing Armenian or Greek golds, especially believed to be at historic churches, according to the information given by the ministry.
Built in the 18th century in the Central Anatolian province of Kayseri, Surp Toros Gregorian Armenian Church was damaged by treasure hunters last week, while a 2-meter-deep pit dug in one of the church’s rooms destroyed the walls of the building.
The Germus Armenian Church in the southern province of Şanlıurfa and a church cave in the Mediterranean province of Antalya belonging to the Late Roman and Byzantine periods also suffered from illegal excavations done with piercing tools.
Archaeologist Nezih Başgelen draws attention to the fact that treasure hunters have been entering archaeological sites with generators, hammer drills and heavy pieces of machinery in recent years.
“One of the most important problems of our country in terms of our cultural assets and archaeological riches is the destruction caused by treasure hunting activities and the illegal smuggling of the artifacts abroad,” Başgelen said, adding that during the pandemic process, it is observed that activities for treasure purposes were gradually increasing.
Underlining the importance of Bintepeler’s location in the Aegean settlement of Sardes, which was the capital city of the Lydians, Başgelen stated that it was difficult to compensate for the loss caused by the destruction of the monumental tombs in this region.
In the last two years, 26 illegal excavations were caught red-handed in the region, and 66 people were detained.