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Turkey fights rising tide of antiquities trafficking

Turkey fights rising tide of antiquities trafficking

As Turkey’s Middle Eastern neighbors Syria and Iraq grappled with years of war and conflict, Turkey saw a wave of artifact smuggling from these nations’ rich cultural heritage, according to an expert. “Yes, the unrest in the region made illegal trafficking shoot up, but in line with the regional circumstances, Turkey is taking measures,” says Zeynep Boz of the Culture and Tourism Ministry’s Anti-Trafficking Unit. “After the (2011) outbreak of the war in Syria, Turkey acted very quickly even before any international organizations had made declarations,” Boz said.

“Turkey considers the matter of cultural property to stand above any political discussions,” she added. “Thus, as the unrest started, all (Turkish) museums, private museums and collectors were sensitized about objects possibly coming from Syria or Iraq. … Any object of illegal origin seized in Turkey has either already been returned or is set to be returned to its country of origin,” she said.

According to the ministry, Turkey returned 81 objects to neighboring Iran and two more to China in 2019 alone. “Our efforts are not one-sided, and our respect for cultural property is not confined to our borders,” Boz explained. “It’s worth noting that the circulation of fakes rose drastically as the situation in Syria started.”

The fight against cultural object trafficking in Turkey has three prongs, according to Boz. “The first,” she said, “is legislation, as at least since 1906, under national law, doing unauthorized excavations is prohibited. … Failure to notify state authorities of even accidental findings is sanctioned. Additionally, under the law, exporting cultural property is punishable by five to 12 years in prison,” she added.