Museums as our identity

Museums as our identity

the ancient city of Knidos

September 29, 2011, Thursday/ 15:30:00

Our country is literally an open-air museum, and I am not talking about the Yesemek Open-Air Museum in İslâhiye. What I am talking about is Anatolia, the cradle of so many civilizations. Go anywhere you will in Anatolia, and you will encounter the traces of different cultures and civilizations.

As for the famous Bergama Museum in Berlin, it is a living lesson on its own. The Germans literally carried away the entire Bergama temple and created a fantastic museum when they put it back together again in Germany. It would take a very long time to explain just how or why they did this, but at the same time, one needs to think: How exactly is it that these originally Anatolian pieces got here?

At the same time though, some of these rich treasures of ours have been carried off in various ways to far away lands. One of these treasures is the Weary Hercules, the top half of which has been in foreign hands for years. One part of this statue -- the bottom half -- was first discovered during a dig in Antalya's Perge in 1980, but there was no information at the time about where the top half might be.

Years later, the top half of the Weary Hercules was found to actually be sitting in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Negotiations that began soon after this discovery was made have finally come to an end and the top half has made its way back to Turkey by way of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's airplane. Very soon, the top half is to be reunited with its bottom and with the lands from which it originated. I await that day with patience and excitement.

The truth is that I am always very excited about museums. I have experienced this sense of excitement when visiting museums in cities all over the world. It gives me a thrill to see items that once belonged to people living in different times and different places. I discover new things about myself in museums. I try to understand my own place within the larger vista of human history. I learn to be modest. I recall once more worldliness and the fleeting transiency of the world around me. I witness with envy those who are gone now but have left behind pleasant echoes of their stays on earth. I think deeply about the mournful and unfortunate endings of those who were tyrants, cruel leaders and blood-suckers.

I always feel exhilaration when stepping through the doors to a museum, but there are different reasons for this. seeing the possessions and creations left to the care of history, and then to us, and seeing the messages expressed by these items is thrilling for me. Sometimes it is hard to hold back tears when seeing these pieces left from so many years ago. I am talking about something different than the heavy emotions I feel when visiting the Sacred Trusts exhibit at the Topkapı Palace Museum. After all, people of every religion in the world feel amazement and wonder when seeing the symbols of their religion that are important to them. What I am talking about here is a bit different.

Witnessing history before me

I am talking about an emotion that derives from witnessing history before me. As Yaşar Yılmaz, who pursued the traces of historical objects carried away from Turkey, said, “Mine are the tears of Anatolia,” a reference to a project in which Yılmaz traveled to many countries and found about 40,000 artifacts taken from Turkey, which he photographed and documented.

I felt these same things when touring the famous Louvre in Paris, the British Museum in London and the Bergama Museum in Berlin. Along the same lines, I was filled with tremendous grief and a sense of mourning when I saw the front of an Ottoman ship that had been defeated in Çeşme exhibited in St. Petersburg. And who wouldn't feel emotional when witnessing the small gravesite of Yusuf, who was captured during the second siege of Vienna, in the courtyard of a church in Germany? Poor young Yusuf believed, all the way up to his death, that his father would come and rescue him, but in the end, he died in foreign hands and lands, longing for his family and his country.

As for the famous Bergama Museum in Berlin, it is on its own a living lesson. The Germans literally carried away the entire Bergama temple and created a fantastic museum when they put it back together again in Germany. It would take a very long time to explain just how or why they did this, but at the same time, one needs to think: How exactly is it that these originally Anatolian pieces got here?

There is a part of Berlin that is densely populated by Turks, Kreuzberg. In fact, there are so many Turks here that it is literally like a small Turkish city. I toured the streets here early in the morning, as well as late at night. I tried to observe fellow Turks here up close, as well as from far away. Seeing the kids going off to school in the morning wearing their Galatasaray, Beşiktaş and Fenerbahçe uniforms gave me great hope and made me very happy. It also made me think about the various joys, sorrows and worries that their own particular lives might have.

In general though, I did witness a certain air of melancholy surrounding all the Turks I saw, whether they were doing well or badly. After all, these are people living far away from their land and their people and in full awareness that they are not from the place where they now live.

I felt these same emotions scrutinizing the historical pieces on display at Berlin's Bergama Museum. The vast majority of these pieces from very old eras and civilizations were brought from Anatolia, from Bergama, Yesemek, Zincirli, Ephesus and Antep. In fact, literally all of the historical sites on the İstanbul-Baghdad train line were looted. And in the end, this rich variety of pieces has been condemned to live out its existence amongst these people and in these lands from which it does not originate.

The magnificent statue of Hadad

I stand before what is perhaps one of the first meteorological gods in history, Hadad. The statue of Hadad is a magnificent one made of black stone.

I looked at information about where the statue came from, and noted with surprise that Hadad had been found in the village of Zincirli, a small place on the road between Gaziantep and Antakya, not far from where I was born and raised. I took one more look at this tremendous statue in the hands of foreigners, so far from Anatolia.

The Bergama Museum is one of the most famous museums in the world. It is not possible to see it all in one day. I stayed at this museum as long as I could and tried to see as many of the pieces that I had a special interest in as possible. When I finally left the museum, I felt tired. Not just tired, but melancholy and sad. There was something bothering me too, in addition to my obvious discomfort at seeing these pieces so far from their homes. Had these pieces stayed at home, would they have been so well cared for? I was unable to answer “yes” to this. My experience did not allow me to give such an answer.

My childhood years were spent in a village very close to the ancient site of Tilmen Höyük. This site is actually one of the oldest in the world and I know it like the back of my hand. It was actually a playground for the village children, this site where so many kings lived, where princes and princesses were married. What is terrible about this site is the destruction wrought by treasure hunters looking for profit.

Appreciating what we have

First came the Italians and then the Germans. They carried out digs and the youths of the village assisted them. No one knew anything about the value of the treasures being pulled out of the ground in Tilmen Höyük. The only important thing to the young men helping them was money they earned and the social security benefits they gained. Every foreigner working the site was given insurance. In later years, our own scholars came to the site and now everyone is aware of Tilmen Höyük and the Yesemek Open-Air Museum, but as for the treasures that emerged from here, they await us in various museums all over the world.

They have been sitting in foreign hands for enough time now, perhaps too long. The time has come -- and in fact passed -- to bring them home the same way Weary Hercules was brought back.

Yes, just as museums are a mirror of history, they are also our identities in a way. We see our history as well as ourselves in museums. Do whatever you will, but don't neglect visiting museums. And don't forget that our country is filled with open-air museums. There is history, civilization and art bursting out all over the place. We need to visit and understand these places, for to understand them is to gain insight into ourselves and our own humanity.

*İbrahim Özdemir is a professor at Gazikent University.