What’s the deal with Turkish museums?
Prior to visiting the Ephesus Archaeological Museum in Selcuk, we were waylaid by a local who makes his living by stalking Germans, Japanese and Americans in the parking lot next to the museum. Day after day unsuspecting tourist are lured into a transparent web by this man’s nearly flawless English and his seeming kindnesses:
"Are you Americans? I have been to America! What state are you from? Washington!?!? I love Pacific Northwest! I have been to Tacoma! Please, allow me to escort you to museum. And, after you have visited our wonderful museum, I want you to come to my family’s shop for tea. No obligations, but you must come to my store for tea. No obligations."
On the whole, I am not the least bit bothered by this kind of thing. I have experienced it countless times before and in many different places. I actually have a grudging respect for aggressive barkers and I always try to be polite to them in return. Firm, but polite. Sadly, there are those rare occasions when a salesman is so good at drawing you in and convincing you his shtick is genuine, that it gets under your skin and stays with you for a very long time. It angers you. But not because of the guy. Rather, it angers you because you should know better …
In coming to Turkey I was expecting to see some amazing Hittite, Greco-Roman, and Byzantine objects. And I have. But not nearly as many as I thought I might. In truth, the general state of museums in Turkey is frustratingly poor. The archaeological museum in Istanbul is the only facility that comes anywhere near the level of its rivals in London, Athens, and Paris. Yet, in spite of this fact, the facilities in Istanbul are cramped, dark, and severely outdated. Moreover, the part of the museum that was directly related to my research on ancient libraries was closed to the public for renovation. A much needed renovation to be sure, (viz. the poor lighting and the office cube partitions in the photo below), but one that I didn’t know about until after I had already paid my entrance fee.
Statue of Celsus, Library of Celsus, Ephesus - Istanbul Archaeological Museum (Thank you, Wikipedia!)
Not unlike Greece and Egypt, Turkey has seen many of its greatest archaeological treasures placed into crates, loaded onto cargo ships, and sent to the capital cities of western Europe. One of the most notable examples of this is the wholesale removal of the so-called Pergamon Altar by the German engineer and amateur archeologist, Carl Humann, and its reconstruction at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin.
Pergamon Altar - Pergamon Museum, Berlin, Germany (Thanks again, Wikipedia!)
Like the Elgin Marbles at the British Museum, I have mixed emotions about the Pergamon Altar and the Telephos Frieze being in Berlin. On the one hand, it is a fact that the stones and structures of ancient sites have been mined by subsequent generations so as to construct newer buildings and towns, thereby destroying any chance that the ancient structures can be preserved or restored. Similarly, a lack of funds, a dearth of interest, and the ravages of time, weather, and war (here I am thinking about the Parthenon, which was nearly destroyed during the Great Turkish War in the late 17th c. and again by acid rain in the 20th c.) have all played a part in the demise, or near demise, of many archeological sites the world over. On the other hand, many of the countries that have been unceremoniously relieved of their historical and cultural patrimony by foreign governments and colonialist powers are both figuratively and literally poorer as a result. Not only do countries like Turkey lose out on the potential revenue that would be generated by having such items, but there is a profound sense of loss that is felt by citizen and visitor alike when visiting a site like Pergamon that has been mined of its greatest treasures and had them transported half a world away …
After leaving the Ephesus Archeological Museum we walked in the opposite direction of the parking lot hoping to avoid the overly aggressive barker, but he saw us from a distance and waived for us to come towards him. In response, I called to out and said: ”We are going to walk around the town for a while, but we might see you later.” Upon hearing this he gave me two thumbs-up as if to say “I understand, my gullible friends. I will see you shortly!”
About an hour later, after doubling back around the museum and approaching the parking lot from a completely different direction, we could see our rental car, a black Seat hatchback, sitting uncomfortably between two Mercedes’ tour busses. The barker was nowhere to be seen, but his presence, it must be said, could be felt. ”This is our chance.” I said in a half whisper, half yell. “GO, GO!” Positioning ourselves between the road and a third tour bus that had just entered the lot, we walked with urgency towards the car like Luke and Leia making a break for the Millennium Falcon. But when we were no more than 10 feet from the Seat a disembodied voice called out to us from the ether:
"Hello, my friends from Olympia, Washington! How did you like our beautiful museum?" The barker said with a mustachioed grin as he rematerialized from behind one of the busses.
"Well …" I made the "so-so" sign with my right hand. "It was kind of disappointing."
"Dis-a-pointing? He said with his head cocked ever so slightly to the right.
"I’m sorry if this sounds rude, but it wasn’t very good. I work with ancient sources and ancient history for a living and I have been to a lot of museums. Given how large and well preserved Ephesus is, I was expecting the exhibit to be better somehow."
"So, you have been to Ephes before? You have worked there?"
"No, I have not been there before, but I am doing research on the library of Ephesus for a book that I am writing."
"Oh." Said the man with an air of sadness and mild disinterest.
"Well … we have a lot of driving to do today and we will not be able to visit your shop, but I want to thank you for your generosity and for inviting us to tea." I said while placing my right hand over my heart.
"Yes, of course." He said as he reached out to shake my hand. "I understand." And you know what? I think he did …