A while ago I wrote about the Elgin marbles and the Pergamon marbles might be seen as a similar problem, though their origin is in Turkey, not Greece. Today, we tried to see them in their museum in Berlin and what a misery it was. It did not help that as we approached the museum, it began to rain, but maybe that was a divine message, a rebuke maybe. We made our way to what appeared to be the front door of the museum which, like so much in berlin is in the process of restoration, so the whole thing resembled a building site.


And there in the rain was a sorrowful queue stretching around the block. I thought this must have been for the special exhibition hosted here on Babylon but no! It was for the Pergamon marbles, the altar of Zeus and the price- astonishing at 12e each! Now the real issue is that in a matter of weeks, the Pergamon exhibition itself will be closed for the next 5 years and the altar will be denied the public till about 2019!

The Zeus Altar was built in the third century B.C. by the founder of Antalya, Attalos to commemorate the victory over the Galatians. The German excavations led by Carl Humman took place between 1878 and 1886 and involved an elaborate jigsaw puzzle of the various sections of the huge altar. The sultan, Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II, was believed at the time to be saving antiquity by inviting scholars and archaeologists to explore, catalogue and if necessary ship back to Europe a variety of priceless artifacts.

Legal Evidence for retaining Pergamon

In 2002, the then Cultural State Secretary Fikret Üccan said in Die Welt, “They tell us, the Pergamon Altar and other artefacts in the Pergamon Museum were carried out of Turkey with a permission. We can’t verify this. They show us old letters, some of them written by people without much responsibility in that time.” Other Turkish officials have been more forthright about the legal rights to the Pergamon marbles but they ignore an “irade”, an order of the Padisah, a high Ottoman official, where the sultan abstained from every right to the findings in Pergamon in exchange for 20,000 Marks.

Like Greece’s call for the return of the Elgin marbles, Turkey’s current Prime Minister echoes his predecessor, in demanding the return of the Pergamon altar. Countering this, German officials say that Turkey has scant regard for its own antiquities and insufficient experience of exhibiting them properly. They point to the flooding of Allianoi in 2011. But like the Elgin marbles, there is a question about the legality and the morality of keeping the acquisitions.

Muted and limited requests

Ömer Çelik, however, the culture and tourism minister in 2013, was less abrasive than his predecessor Culture Minister Ertugrul Gunay and said in an article printed in Der Speigel that the altar was not in fact up for negotiation: “This particular artifact was turned over to German authorities, with the necessary permits, during the time of the Ottoman Empire. We are not asking for the return of such artifacts. However, we do want to work, through negotiations and simple persuasion, to bring back items that left Turkey without permits and therefore illegally.” He goes on to list the five items specifically requested: “the sarcophagus from the tomb of Haci Ibrahim Veli, a fisherman statue from Aphrodisias and the prayer niche from the Beyhekim Mosque in Konya. We are also asking for the return of a window frame from the same mosque, and of Iznik tiles from the Piyale Pasha Mosque in Istanbul.” All of these items were exported from Turkey at a time between 1884 and 1906 when exports of art was prohibited except on the personal orders of the Sultan. No such orders exist to cover these items. In response, Hermann Parzinger for the Museum accused Turkey of “chauvinism”, pointed to the return of the Hittite Sphinx of Hattusa (“as a voluntary gesture of friendship”*) and says the rest of the claims are baseless. Making the matter worse is the poor maintenance of a German excavation site in Miletus and the theft of a statue at Göbekli Tepe in 2010 which was also being excavated by a German-led team. Celik says, “I’m not saying the head of the excavation team stole the statue, simply that he didn’t take the necessary security measures. Germany paid a fine for what happened.”

*The statue had been taken to Germany initially for what was called “restoration work” but it was then added to the permanent collection in the Pergamon museum.

the charge of Chauvinsim

The claim of “chauvinism” is peculiar but becomes more understandable in the light of German frustration to borrow a portrait head of Alexander the Great. The insurance became so great, the loan became impossible. At the same time, the Germans say that Turkey wants many antiquities to be sent back to Turkish museums, either as part of their permanent collection or as fairly permanent loans. the deal, from the German point of view, is unfair. The British museum had identified and arranged for the transport of 35 objects for the “Hajj” exhibition in 2012. Because it has not returned the “Samsat stele”, the 35 objects destined for the UK were denied an export licence and the British museum had to scrabble around to find suitable replacement pieces. The director of the British Museum said of the Stele, “At no point between 1927 and 2005 have the Turkish authorities, who were fully aware of the stele’s location, suggested that it has been improperly acquired or should be returned.”

Turkey counters with reference to the repatriation of works looted by the Soviets from Germany. “In his interview with Der SPIEGEL,” says Çelik,Mr. Parzinger said that all the treasures the Soviets stole from Germany during and after World War II must be returned to Germany. We consider this legitimate. It is then also logical to say that everything that was exported from Turkey without a permit should be given back. We can’t say that one thing is right but the other wrong.”

All this talk of repatriation is echoed by a former culture minister in Egypt, Zahi Hawass. “Countries that have had their heritage assets removed by other nations need to fight together to improve their chances of having them returned,” he said a few years’ ago.

Refocusing the debate

I think the debate here is mistaken. One of the positive aspects of the British museum position is that access to the marbles there is free and relatively painless. The Parthenon museum in Athens is expensive so the public get a better deal in London. I think it is difficult to argue with that. On top of that, the sale of the marbles to Elgin is fairly straightforward, the legality of the sale was debated in Parliament and a special gallery was created to house the marbles.

Three points need to be made:


Regarding the Pergamon marbles, I see only one legitimate reason for their return, and that is fairly strong -that is that the Berlin museum charges tourists to view the artifact. Free access is reasonable especially if the artifact itself is questionable acquired.

Legal position:

The legal position is fairly clear. We cannot invalidate a contract without good reason even if our attitude to the trading of national artifacts has changed since the 19th century.

National heritage:

The third and final point is that Turkey must ask whether the Pergamon altar is really part of its own national heritage- it could legitimately be claimed to be part of the Greek heritage and Greece might one day add the Pergamon marbles to its list of demands for repatriation to the Acropolis museum.

Meanwhile the Turks have built a replica altar in Pergamon with a sign saying that the original is currently in Berlin and it is hoped that a “museum of the civilisations” will open in 2023 in Ankara and that it will be stocked with Turkish themed loans from a number of international collections.

Sadly, the Turkish government, like the Greek government cannot have it both ways. You cannot call a person a thief and then ask the same person to loan you some of his (probably stolen) stuff, particularly if you make a fuss about claiming a moral right to possession of the stuff anyway. Who would sanction such a loan? What guarantee would there be that you would ever return the stuff (especially when we know you think it is really yours)? This is a moral minefield but the climate is changing.

In the Economist in May 2012, the thenTurkish Culture Minister Günay wrote, “I wholeheartedly believe that each and every antiquity in any part of the world should eventually go back to its homeland.”


Author: timewilson

animator director and teacher

One thought on “Pergamon”

  1. Calindimi yoksa Verildimi.

    Acropolis ve Bergama’nin Huzunlu kaderi.

    2014 yilinin sonunda 5 yil surecek restorasyon calismasi icin kapatilacak olan berlinin dunyaca unlu Bergama Muzesine ismini veren muhdecek Bergama kalintilarinin hikayesi.

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