Looting ancient and modern
Last weekend I visited the Istanbul Archaeological Museum for the first time. In my trade that is a rather shaming confession – as if a middle-aged professor of English Literature were to admit to only having just finished Middlemarch. Like most long-deferred pleasures, it had its unexpected sides.
One of the most curious highlights was a small fragment of a purple marble foot. You would hardly give it second look, except for the history that was explained on its label. For this was the toe of one figure in that famous statue group of Roman emperors (the Tetrarchs) which now stands against the wall of San Marco in Venice, one of the highlights of that Square.
The Venetians took it in the thirteenth century, when they controlled Constantinople, as the city was then called after its founder the Roman emperor Constantine (that was when they looted the “Horses of San Marco” too). But they broke off this piece of a foot in the process and left it behind. It was found centuries later in the rubbish heap of an archaeological excavation in the city. Even the archaeologists nearly missed it.
But this is not the only tiny fragment of a famous monument now elsewhere.
There is small piece of the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus (most of which is in the British Museum). There is a head of the goddess Aphrodite from the Great Altar of Pergamum. The German excavators who dug up this extraordinary monument and took it to Berlin in the nineteenth century obviously missed this little bit. Then there’s another head from the so-called Harpy Tomb in Southern Turkey, also largely in the BM.
Whatever claims there might be behind the scenes for the return of (say) the Pergamum Altar to Turkey, the Museum itself is publicly very laid back about the diaspora of their country’s treasures. There are none of those Greek-style information panels deploring the vandalism of the wicked Lord Elgin, or leaflets urging you to support the campaign for “restitution”. Instead, there is just a series of deadpan statements to the effect that the rest of this monument can be found in Berlin. London or whatever.
It’s not surprising that they are laid back – because there are a number of important objects on display that are the result of traffic “the other way”. In fact the whole museum reveals the complicated texture of cultural imperialism over almost 2000 years – Roman, Byzantine, Venetian, Ottoman, “Northern European”. It is a good lesson in why many claims about the restitution of cultural property are horribly oversimplified.
Constantinople was established in the fourth century AD on the very principle of cultural borrowing. Those horses of San Marco, which the Venetians took, had already travelled to Constantinople from somewhere in Greece. One of the other curiosities of the Archaeological Museum is the bronze head of a serpent which Constantine took from Delphi. It is part of the Victory Monument put up by the Greeks to commemorate their defeat of the Persians at the battle of Plataea in 479 BC. The rest of this giant snake still stands, not at Delphi, but in the centre of modern Istanbul on the site of the ancient Hippodrome, next to an obelisk from Egypt.
Other treasures in the Museum come from excavations carried out in the dying days of the Ottoman empire. The sicker the “Old Man of Europe” became, the more he called into the centre antiquities from his outlying imperial territories. Sculpture from Baalbek, a magnificent statue of Zeus from Gaza, a tremendous Roman sarcophagus from Tripoli depicting the story of Phaedra and Hippolytus.
But the most stunning part of the display is a series of sarcophagi, from the fifth through the fourth centuries BC, found in a tomb belonging to a single family of Phoenician dynasts. The first is a characteristically Egyptian stone coffin, here used second-hand for a man called Tabnit, perhaps the dynasty’s founder. Just over a hundred years later one of Tabnit's descendants was buried in one of the most accomplished pieces of Greek sculpture to have survived anywhere in the world. It is known as the “Alexander sarcophagus” – because it is decorated with friezes depicting the campaigns of Alexander the Great, still retaining clear traces of its luscious original colour.
In what part of the old Ottoman empire were these found? That is the poignant side. They were discovered in Sidon in the Lebanon. We were gawping at these masterpieces of the ancient city at the very moment that Israeli forces were leafleting that city – telling the civilians to get out.