Turkish Culture Minister: No tolerance for antiquity smuggling from Syria

Published 18.04.2016 00:00

Responding to claims that Turkey allows the smuggling of antiquities from war-torn Syria, the Culture and Tourism Minister said these allegations were "groundless and ugly" and that to the contrary, Turkey had worked tirelessly to stop smuggling.

Mahir Ünal said in a written statement yesterday that the government raised alarms on smuggling, especially after the conflict in Syria began five years ago, and most recently with the Emergency Red List released by the International Council of Museums (ICOM). The list classifies endangered archaeological objects or works of art to prevent their sale or smuggling from conflict and disaster zones.

Turkey shares a lengthy border with Syria, and has faced accusations, particularly from Russian media, of ignoring the smuggling of antiquities by the DAESH terrorist organization.

Ünal said Turkey exerted caution with regard to the cultural assets of neighboring countries, as much as it cares for its own, noting that Turkey shared a common cultural and historic heritage with Syria, Iraq and other Middle Eastern countries.

"(The government) already issued warnings for all security and customs officers on the border and cities near the border to keep Turkey from becoming a transit country or market place for cultural artifacts from Syria. Law enforcement and all relevant authorities are cautious on the matter. We are also in touch with relevant authorities and people against smuggling, both in Turkey and the world, and raised the issue of artifact smuggling in international bodies. Lately, we translated ICOM's list and delivered it to all museums, collectors, customs officers, law enforcement officials and all others who may come upon a suspicious case," he said. Ünal noted that the ICOM list helps with the identification of artifacts that may be smuggled. "We also warn museums, auction houses, collectors and merchants, etc. not to buy such artifacts without seeing legal documents authorizing their sale."

The ICOM note lists antiquities and archaeological items, ranging from terracotta and paper writing material dating to early Bronze Age to sculptures in relief from ancient ages, vessels, decorated marbles, jewelry and coins, from the prehistoric era to the Ottoman era in Syria.

Last year, Turkish troops seized a large cache of artifacts in Elazığ that had been stolen from Palmyra Museum in Syria, held by DAESH until recently. Among the artifacts recovered was a statue named "desert bride" and a wine goblet belonging to Roman Emperor Tiberius.

Though the smuggling of historical artifacts into Turkey from Syria, often by individuals rather than groups such as DAESH, has increased, Turkey has stepped up measures against smuggling, as 1,042 artifacts were confiscated in 2014 at the Turkish border, possibly to be sold to Turkish buyers or buyers from other countries.

The Cilvegözü border crossing between Turkey and Syria is among the main hubs used by smugglers who often hide artifacts in cars. Double checkpoints set up on the border for X-ray scanning and manual searches help to curb smuggling.

Antiquity smuggling is regarded as a lucrative income source for DAESH. Thus, the U.N. Security Council has banned all trade in antiquities from Syria. The council stated that DAESH and others were generating income from engaging directly or indirectly in the looting and smuggling of cultural heritage items to support their recruitment efforts and strengthen their operational capability.

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