Cultural heritage at risk: Turkey

Çatalhöyük after the first excavations by James Mellaart and his team (photo: Omar hoftun, CC: BY-SA 3.0)

Çatalhöyük after the first excavations by James Mellaart and his team (photo: Omar Hoftun, CC: BY-SA 3.0)

The modern state of Turkey is one of the most archeologically and culturally rich places in the world; scholars have published on over a hundred thousand sites across the country (Özdoğan 2013). It boasts 15 sites of cultural importance on UNESCO’s World Heritage list, and has 60 additional sites under consideration. Despite the identification of and reporting on thousands of sites, only about 11,000 are officially registered with the Turkish government. Registration is critical to the preservation and protection of sites; without it, they can be destroyed during new building projects and land development.

The struggle to protect sites from modern building and development is the result of limited resources and personnel. With thousands of sites awaiting the attention of the government, employees of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism are fighting a never-ending battle. In addition to examining new sites and excavations, they must also maintain officially registered sites which are threatened by an explosion of tourism. Developing heritage management plans for these sites is critical, but time consuming as well.

While many of Turkey’s own antiquities have been and continue to be looted today, it has become a highway for illicit antiquities coming from its turbulent neighbors, Syria and Iraq.

What is at stake for Turkey?

Turkey, located within the region of Anatolia, has been home to many diverse modern, historical, and ancient cultures, and its history captures the breadth of the modern human experience.

Caves and western coastal sites dating to the Paleolithic (~400,000–14,000 B.C.E.) and Mesolithic (~14,000–10,000 B.C.E.) periods contain evidence for the earliest human presence in Anatolia.

The Neolithic period (10,000–5,000 B.C.E.) is well represented and is known internationally for several important sites. Catalhöyuk, in southern Turkey, is the largest and best preserved Neolithic site. Reaching its peak around 7,000 B.C.E., the site has evidence of plant and animal domestication and large permanent settlements. At the site of Göbeklitepe, in the southeast, archeologists uncovered a mountain-top sanctuary dating to around 9,000 B.C.E., making it the oldest identified religious structure in the world.

Across Turkey during the Chalcolithic (5,000–3,000 B.C.E.) and Bronze (3,000–1200 B.C.E.) Ages there is abundant evidence for the early development of metal processing, trade, and production. Increasing economic and social complexity led to a rise in urbanism and the development of massive centers, such as Hattusha, the Hittite capital. On the western coast, inhabitants during this time came into greater contact with other Mediterranean cultures, such as the Minoans of Crete and the Greeks. One of the most famous of these settlements is ancient Troy, which was famously under siege by the Greeks in Homer’s Iliad and later looted by Heinrich Schliemann’s nineteenth-century explorations of the site.

In later historic periods, many diverse cultures inhabited Anatolia and later the political state of Turkey influencing its landscape and the history of the states around it. Numerous societies, including the Urartians, Phrygians, Lydians, Persians, and Lycians, established or conquered other kingdoms in Anatolia and are known through both archaeological and textual sources. With the conquest of Persia by Alexander the Great, Anatolia came under Greek influence ushering in the Hellenistic Period (4th–1st century B.C.E.). Later the Roman Empire (1st century B.C.E.–4th century C.E.) absorbed Anatolia, marking another cultural transformation and historic events that would lead to the founding of the Byzantine Empire (395–1453 C.E.) based in Constantinople, modern Istanbul. Medieval and modern successors to this rich history of Anatolia include various Turkomen tribes, the Seljuk Turks, the Ahlatshahs and Artuquids, and eventually the Ottomans.

Turkey’s cultural heritage endangered


Turkey has many laws that protect its cultural heritage, however, the abundance of ancient materials has essentially overburdened government agencies, which often lack the resources and manpower to enforce the laws and preserve these sites.

Some of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism’s own policies inadvertently work against protecting sites. For example, even though a scholarly publication may be available for an excavated site, it is not enough for it to gain official registry with the government; instead, a member of the ministry must visit the site and re-document its findings (Özdoğan 2013). Employees are often overburdened already, and the time and resources for this type of documentation are highly limited.

Likewise, rescue excavations of sites threatened by modern development can only be conducted by museums and universities, who are also understaffed for this additional research, because contract archeology is not recognized by the government (Özdoğan 2013). This limitation can lead to hurried or only partial excavations of sites that may contain thousands of years of human occupation.

Modern Construction and Development

Turkey’s past and present are constantly confronted with one another; negotiating the rights of its modern citizens while protecting the past is one of its greatest challenges today. Some recent examples of modern activities that threaten the integrity of archeological sites include farming and pasturing near archeological sites, flooding large areas of land after the building of dams in the east, and the construction of new roads and buildings. The latter are major problems within modern Istanbul, which is experiencing a population boom that strains the resources and infrastructure of the city.

In 2004, plans for a new metro and light rail system in Istanbul were initiated to alleviate some of the traffic in the city. Keeping in mind the rich archaeology underneath the city, the subway was to be drilled into the bedrock to avoid disturbing potential sites. The project was approved, but neglected to consider the need for ventilation shafts and stairs to reach the metro lines, the digging for which would likely uncover sites and features. Sites were inevitably uncovered and unforeseen rescue excavations led by the Istanbul Archaeology Museum took place across the city, temporarily delaying the metro project, for several years in some areas (Özdoğan 2013). Pressure from the public and government forced these excavations to be conducted at a more rapid rate than normal. While the excavations were successful, it is clear that modern infrastructure was more a pressing issue than the archeological sites beneath the city. Almost any building projects in Istanbul are likely to face similar challenges in the future.

The Yedikule Gardens have been a fixture in Istanbul since the Byzantine Era and continue to be used by local residents as urban vegetable gardens. A portion of the gardens are surrounded by massive city walls built under Theodosius II in the 5thcentury C.E. and are a protected UNESCO heritage site. In 2013, plans were underway to transform part of the gardens into an urban park with a decorative pool. Demolition of the area began without warning, destroying the vegetable gardens of local inhabitants, and deep digging near the ancient wall damaged its foundation and stability. Archeologists from the Istanbul Archaeology Museum intervened, arguing that this was a protected area, the project was unearthing and destroying Ottoman and Byzantine archeological materials, and the excavations should proceed under their guidance to ensure no further damage is done (White et al. 2015). Luckily, in a July 2015 court decision, development in and near the gardens was halted indefinitely.

Similarly, the garden associated with the 16th-century Piyalepaşa mosque was also under threat recently (as of August 2015). Plans to turn the space into a parking structure were halted temporarily and are under review. The garden was conceived by the original architect of the mosque and was regarded as essential to the intended use and experience of the space.


While positive in many aspects, the increasing tourism across Turkey threatens the preservation of archeological sites. The growing number of visitors annually (at some sites numbering over a million a year) results in greater demand for lodging, food, and transportation near sites. Providing such services has inevitable impacts on archeological sites as well as the surrounding environment (Serin 2005). Offering lodging for tourists wishing to visit an archeological site requires building near the site. Often just a portion of a site is visible with much of it remaining unexcavated; without proper survey prior to new building, the unseen areas of sites can easily be damaged or completely destroyed.

Additionally, without proper heritage management plans the sites can be damaged by visitors walking on or around fragile areas compromising the integrity of structures. The lack of resources and personnel leave some sites completely unattended and unprotected from damaging behavior by visitors and may increase the possibility of looting by thieves.

Market demand for Turkish antiquities

The looting and sales of antiquities from Turkey is an ongoing problem as many sites are left unprotected or have not been fully excavated. Established networks of looters, smugglers, middlemen, and buyers transport antiquities out of the country. The destination for many of these antiquities is Switzerland where artifacts are housed, sometimes for several decades, before appearing on the market to buyers in Germany, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

The Syrian Conflict and the destruction by ISIS, currently devastating the archeological landscape in neighboring Syria and Iraq, are escalating the transport of illicit antiquities through Turkey. Civilians are left jobless and desperate to support their families, and the readily available archeological materials have become a primary source of income. Objects looted from these sites are often smuggled into Turkey and sold to Western buyers.

Ancient coins, cylinder seals, and cuneiform tables are highly prized from sites in Turkey, Syria, and Iraq. They are easy to conceal and transport and are a favorite amongst collectors. Additionally, pre-Islamic figurines are desirable as art pieces and are also relatively easy to transport.

What is Turkey doing to protect its cultural heritage?

Turkey has a long list of laws to protect archaeological sites and artifacts from destruction, looting, and illicit sales (UNESCO Database of National Cultural Heritage Laws–Turkey). Its most important, the Law on the Protection of Cultural and Natural Property, was enacted in 1983 as a form of blanket legislation, which declares that all antiquities found and not yet found within Turkey are property of the state; therefore, antiquities found within its borders are illegal to export. With this type of law, any object that is removed from its borders is considered stolen property; it does not, however, apply to antiquities discovered beyond its borders meaning illicit artifacts traveling through Turkey are not subject to these laws.

Turkey has used this type of blanket legislation to sue foreign museums for the return of items they believe to have been looted from sites within its borders. In the case of the Lydian Hoard, Turkey took legal action against the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to recover a collection of 363 artifacts, which they believed to have been looted from burial mounds in the Manisa and Uşak regions of Turkey in the 1960s. The assemblage, which included gold and silver vessels and jewelry, wall paintings, and a pair of marble sphinxes, was hidden from the public until about 25 years after they were acquired by the museum. Through comparison of other materials found in the burial mounds and interviews with the original looters, Turkey was able to prove that the objects were indeed stolen, and the Met subsequently returned them.

Çatalhöyük after the first excavations by James Mellaart and his team (photo: Omar hoftun, CC: BY-SA 3.0)Today, archeologists and scholars are working to develop heritage management plans for many sites across Turkey. Plans to protect world-famous sites, such as Cappadocia, are underway with support from the international community. Japan’s Funds-in-Trust for the Preservation of World Cultural Heritage, in cooperation of the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism, is investing $1.2 million to protect the Rock Sites of Cappadocia. The project focuses on protecting 22 painted rock-hewn churches and making the area more sustainable for tourism while promoting international cooperation.

Cite this page as: SAFE (Saving Antiquities for Everyone), "Cultural heritage at risk: Turkey," in Smarthistory, January 30, 2018, accessed April 24, 2024,