Symposium on Confronting Colonial Objects: On the Duality of the Ottoman Antiquity Law: Enabling and Constraining Extractive Practices

Symposium on Confronting Colonial Objects: On the Duality of the Ottoman Antiquity Law: Enabling and Constraining Extractive Practices

[Sebastian Willert is a Research Associate at the Leibniz Institute for Jewish History and Culture – Simon Dubnow in Leipzig and Part-time Lecturer at NYU Berlin].

A central theme of Confronting Colonial Objects is law’s complicity in cultural takings and colonial violence. Carsten Stahn’s book shows how colonial law transformed conceptions of property and culture and facilitated cultural extractions. It argues that law simultaneously enabled and constrained cultural takings.  One aspect that is rarely examined in existing discussions is the interplay between antiquity laws and cultural extractions. Confronting Colonial Objects examines this dilemma in Chapter 6. It argues that antiquities regulation was deemed to counter Western cultural imperialism, but ultimately ‘legitimized and facilitated the removal of antiquities (p. 328).’ It illustrates how interpersonal links, foreign control over Antiquities Services, and partage laws contributed to the removal of antiquities from Egypt and the Ottoman Empire. A prominent example are the ongoing ‘legal and moral concerns regarding the partage arrangement’ relating to Ludwig Borchardt’s acquisition of the bust of Nefertiti (p. 223). In this contribution, I would like to shed a greater light on the ways in which antiquities legislation, the partage regime as well as ‘rescue’ and salvage narratives were actively used to facilitate cultural extractions from the Ottoman Empire to the German Empire as part of the scramble for objects. I will draw on research from my forthcoming monograph, and use the examples of the Mshatta Façade and Max von Oppenheim’s (1860–1946) excavation of the Tell Halaf site to demonstrate the interplay between law and dislocations.              

1. Implementing the Partage Regime

Excavations and Translocations of archaeological objects, cultural and religious assets, and antiquities from the Ottoman Empire into European, American, and Ottoman museums were, in theory, regulated through the Ottoman Antiquities legislation. Since 1869, the Sublime Porte attempted to minimize and prohibit the exodus of antiquities from its territory through a series of laws. The legal corpus imposed centrally on the various provinces disregarded a diversity of local legal traditions of different ethnic and religious groups. However, it not only served to regulate foreign excavations in the Ottoman realm and assisted in defining an Ottoman identity based on ancient, later Islamic objects but also as an instrument of appropriation to expand Istanbul’s Müze-i Hümayun’s (Imperial Museum) collection.

Attempts to restrict the export of antiquities date back to the 1850s. The first legislation of 1869 introduced an export ban. The same year Istanbul’s Müze-i Hümayun was inaugurated. Both tools – the law and the museum – served as a symbol of imperial and colonial power. Their introduction coincided with internal colonization, social engineering, and violent measures to enforce Ottoman rule in what the Sublime Porte perceived as peripheral provinces. Under the aegis of the German museum director Philipp Anton Dethier (1803–1881), the Antiquities Law was softwashed in 1874, implementing a partage of excavations finds. This aimed at securing the (foreign) excavators’ right to a share of the archaeological objects. Ten years later, Osman Hamdi (1842–1910), the Müze-i Hümayun’s first Ottoman director, attempted to halt the exodus of antiquities through extensive legislation. Yet, the exploitation of ancient sites did not cease. Foreign archaeological missions relied on the continuation of the partage processes and diplomatic interventions by the monarchs.

Simultaneously, Prussian-German archaeology reached its zenith. Since the German Empire had strengthened its economic, military, and cultural activity in the Ottoman realm in the late 19th century, Berlin, especially the Königliche Museen zu Berlin (Royal Museums of Berlin), became a key global player in the international scramble for objects. Like trading companies that conducted their business across borders, museums developed into global players during the peak of colonialism and imperialism. In this context, the institutions pursued what Hannah Arendt analyzed as the guiding principle of imperialism, an ‘expansion’ of their collections ‘for expansion’s sake.’ Archaeologists from the global north constructed and relied on ‘rescue narratives’ to justify cultural extractions.

2. Taking Mshatta, Leaving its ‘Ghost’

Incorporating antiquities into European and American museums would ‘safeguard’ antiquities and prevent their destruction by locals or neglect by the Ottoman authorities. A photograph testifies to the result of such narratives. It shows a man walking through a field of ruins. Wearing dark clothing and tilting his head to the right of the picture, he looks across large stone blocks towards a wall with decorations.

The picture was taken on January 3, 1914, when the British explorer Gertrude Lowthian Bell (1868-1926) visited the remains of the desert castle of Mshatta (qaṣr al-Mušattā). Bell had visited the site in March 1900. At that time, however, the south façade of the palace was still in place. Bell’s diary reports her first observation from the nearby Khan in Al Jizah. Three years later, the site looked completely different. Following bilateral negotiations, the Berlin Museums acquired the ancient architecture as a personal gift from Sultan Abdülhamid II (1842–1918) to Emperor Wilhelm II (1859–1941). In December 1903, 459 stone blocks, packed in 422 crates, reached the German capital, where the façade was integrated into the Kaiser Friedrich Museum. Bell returned to the site on January 3, 1914. Her companion Ali, photographed passing through the rubble, seemed shocked by the appearance of the desert castle after its demolition. Bell commented on the scenery: ‘After lunch I rode with Ali to Mshetta [Qasr el Mushatta] – or the ghost of it.

The Mshatta façade’s translocation is a significant example of extracting ancient architecture from the Ottoman realm. Representatives of the Berlin Museums succeeded in hiding any information about the façade’s Islamic provenance during the application process to survey, dismantle, and export the monument. The archaeologists constructed a narrative that portrayed the taking as saving the monument from destruction by Hicaz railroad construction work. The State Museums Berlin still refer to that narrative to underline the presence of Mshatta in Berlin as a ‘prime example of shared heritage.

3. The Dusk of the Partage Regime

Mshatta’s extraction and translocation stressed the antiquity law’s ineffectiveness. The Müze-i Hümayun’s directors, Osman Hamdi and his brother Halil Edhem (1861–1938), worked on protectionist campaigns against Western access to ancient sites and the exodus of cultural assets to foreign museums. Consequently, they amended the legislation in the winter of 1905/06. The Antiquities Law of 1906 shaped German-Ottoman relations concerning archaeological undertakings until 1918. The law ended the partage regime, though representatives of the Prussian-German Archaeology tried to enforce its continuity. The legal corpus comprised 35 articles and attributed to the Ottoman General Directorate a monopoly on the study, research, and excavation of antiquities (Art. 10). Regarding foreign archaeological missions, the Antiquities Law stipulated that potential explorers had to apply for a permit at the Ministry of Education (Art. 10). The export, sale, and trade of antiquities without the permission of the Sublime Porte was prohibited (Art. 26).

4. Circumventing the Antiquities Law

After 1906, German excavation enterprises faced the legal situation that they could obtain excavation permits. However, it was not possible to export objects legally. Max von Oppenheim received his permit for Tell Halaf in 1909. The Sublime Porte emphasized that excavated antiquities would become state property. Eventually, the permit ordered the excavator to comply with ‘the rules and regulations mentioned in the Antiquities Law.’In 1911, the Ottoman authorities reminded Oppenheim that he was prohibited from exporting antiquities. The future excavator accepted all conditions for his archaeological undertaking.

Initially, Oppenheim followed the instructions of the Ottoman antiquities administration and did not export any finds from Tell Halaf. However, as the excavation progressed and important finds were uncovered, he concluded that the objects should not be left on site. In an argumentation often marked by racist overtones, Oppenheim referred to the rescue narrative, arguing that the precious artifacts were exposed to destruction by the local population – and neglect by Ottoman authorities. The excavator searched for professional advice, asking Theodor Wiegand (1864–1936), the ‘Director of the Royal Museums abroad in the Ottoman Empire,’ how a ‘safeguarding’ of the finds could be achieved.

Wiegand replied on April 25, 1912, advising Oppenheim to divide them into two groups: ‘1) those that the Turkish government brings to Cospel at its own expense. […] 2) those that remain in place […].’ Wiegand’s advice was in line with Ottoman conditions. He emphasized the impossibility of establishing a legal export: ‘Incidentally, I am shocked by your optimism regarding a possible partage of the finds. I can only promise you what I have already told you here, that due to the Turkish Antiquities Law and the Young-Turkish conditions as well as the attitude of Halil bey depending on it, you will not receive anything unless you steal it.’ Due to the legislation, as Wiegand argued, theft was the only way to export objects: ‘I cannot repeat the only feasible way to you here. It is too oriental for written rendition […]. However, I always think here in the Orient on wistfulness in such cases of the song which I once heard at the Cologne carnival: ‘Always practice fidelity and honesty / Till your cool grave, / Then you have nothing, / then you get nothing, / then they take nothing from you.’’ Wiegand returned to the only viable path for him – advising: ‘Try to get your hands on as many small finds as possible.’

This letter is a testimony of a high-ranking Royal Museum employee’s recommendation to an inexperienced archaeologist to disregard the antiquities laws of the Ottoman Empire. Only a few months later, in August 1912, Oppenheim replied to the director and wrote: ‘Now arrived in Germany, I am pleased to inform you that I have followed your suggestions and that quite a number of rescued crates are already floating on their way to Germany.’

Oppenheim changed his strategy and no longer acted according to legal conditions. When an expedition member traveled back to Germany, he served as a pretext to send boxes to Berlin. Officially, these contained furniture, clothes, and instruments the excavation no longer needed. In fact, archaeological objects were hidden in Lehmann’s luggage. With the help of German diplomatic missions, the transport was sent past the Ottoman customs to the direction of Berlin. Oppenheim relied on an extensive network of assistants; the Baghdad Railway Construction Company and German diplomatic missions in Aleppo, Beirut, and Tripoli helped transport the finds, as did local transport companies.

5. Countermeasures

The Ottoman authorities suspected that Oppenheim would smuggle antiquities. A confiscation of ‘10 boxes and 6 other loads in bags (including 5 stone capitals)’ from ar-Raqqa to Aleppo gained diplomatic explosiveness as the Sublime Porte sent requests about the issue to the German Embassy. Eventually, the Ottoman authorities informed the Müze-i Hümayun about the seizure of Oppenheim’s transport. In December 1913, the objects were shipped to Istanbul to be included in the Müze-i Hümayun’s collection.

During this process, German ambassador Hans von Wangenheim (1859–1915) assessed the proportionality of the unlawful export of archaeological objects: ‘According to current opinion, the theft of antiquities belongs to the category of morally permissible offenses; however, the perpetrator must reckon with the risk of failure and possibly also accept all consequences. Presumably, in the present case, Frhr. v. Oppenheim did not use the means still decisive in Turkey in the right place or to a sufficient extent.’ The German ambassador denied the Sublime Porte the possibility of implementing its legal practice, referring to moral concepts instead. Wangenheim showed no interest in upholding or respecting the Ottoman legislation.

6. Patterns of Cultural Extractions

Max von Oppenheim organized the systematic export of antiquities between 1912 and 1914. A minimum of 276 boxes was dislocated to Berlin until July 1914. Despite existing legislation (and museums), Prussian-German archaeologists denied the Ottomans the ability to take adequate care of antiquities. The narrative was framed within colonial and imperial contexts in an explicitly racist discourse, which placed German excavators outside of the application of Ottoman law.

Simultaneously, the Sublime Porte and the Ottoman Antiquities Administration tried to ensure compliance with the Antiquities Law. The legislation illustrates attempts to acquire objects for the Müze-i Hümayun by supporting foreign excavation campaigns while prohibiting the appropriation of antiquities through the excavator (or population).

Since public and research interest in translocations and restitutions of cultural assets from colonial contexts intensified, the case studies of Mshatta and Tell Halaf exemplify patterns of cultural extractions. They reveal how the Antiquity Law enabled and constrained extractive practices. The Müze-i Hümayun and the Königliche Museen participated in and profited from imperial and colonial ventures, while a growth imperative coined their strategies.

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