The Treaty of Sèvres had seen the Powers grab their share of Anatolia’s ancient past. At Lausanne, Hélène Maloigne reveals, the new Republic staked an exclusive claim to Hittite antiquities as their “birthright.”

Hélène is Assistant Editor at the Bulletin of the History of Archaeology.

According to Can Erimtan, the period between Sèvres and Lausanne was critical for the development of Turkey as a republic and the Turks as a nation. Historians tend to focus on the 1930s as the crucial period of Turkish cultural history, which witnessed the Turkish History Thesis and the establishment of the Turkish History Society (Türk Tarihi Kurumu) in 1931 and an extensive archaeological programme, but the foundation for this was laid during the struggle for independence. The fight against the dismemberment of Anatolia as planned at Sèvres hinged on the identity and self-identification of the Turkish nation with Anatolia as its homeland and its ancient civilisations as its ancestors, in particular the Hittites.

At the height of its power, during the Late Bronze Age (c. 1600–1200 BCE), the Hittite Empire encompassed most of Anatolia and northern Syria (see map). It contributed to extensive cultural and economic exchange with neighbouring Egypt, Babylon, Assyria and Mitanni, and left a lasting imprint on the Anatolian landscape through settlements, rock reliefs and religious sanctuaries. The capital Hattusha (Boğazköy) in central Anatolia was excavated by the German scholar Hugo Winckler and Theodore Makridi, Assistant Director of the Imperial Ottoman Museum in Constantinople, from 1906–1907 and 1911–1912 and – among other finds – yielded thousands of clay tablets. Most of them were inscribed using the Akkadian cuneiform script, but the Hittite language itself had not yet been deciphered. Very little was thus understood about the Hittites, their culture, religion and social organisation or ethnicity, concepts which tended to become confused in early twentieth-century archaeology and politics. Language in particular came to be seen as an ethnic marker for individuals as well as for political communities.


The First World War, however, brought an abrupt end to most archaeological activity in the Ottoman Empire. The defeat of the Ottoman Empire presented Western archaeologists with the opportunity to improve their access to sites and change Ottoman antiquities legislation, which had gradually become stricter during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, first defining both immovable and movable antiquities as nationally owned in 1876 and banning the export of all antiquities in 1884.

Article 421 of the Treaty of Sèvres, written by archaeologists from the allied nations, stipulated that:

The Turkish Government will, within twelve months from the coming into force of the present Treaty, abrogate the existing law of antiquities and take the necessary steps to enact a new law of antiquities which will be based on the rules contained in the Annex hereto.

Treaty of Sèvres, art. 421

Point 8 of this Annex, based on the Palestine ordinance, detailed that: “The proceeds of excavations may be divided between the excavator and the competent Turkish Department in a proportion fixed by that Department.”

This division of finds was one of the key principles underlying this section of the Treaty and was copied into the antiquities legislation of Mandatory Iraq and the French Mandate for Syria and Lebanon (both of which were also written by archaeologists). Sir Frederic Kenyon (1863–1952), Director and Principal Librarian of the British Museum, argued that this was really in the best interest of the local inhabitants. Echoing the language of the Covenant of the League of Nations he told the audience at his presidential address to the Society for the Promotion of Hellenic Studies in 1921 that the ‘inhabitants [of Asia Minor, Syria, Palestine, Egypt and Mesopotamia] are either indifferent to antiquities altogether, or are interested in them solely as a potential source of wealth’ and were thus not sufficiently civilized to look after their material culture. It was the job, nay the moral duty of archaeologists to guide them towards the light of Western knowledge and appreciation of the past and prevent them from selling everything to the first tourist that came along. This cynical and racist distortion served to hide the real profiteers of peace: archaeologists and their main funders, namely Western museums and private collectors.

Verily Anatolia is one of the gardens of the temperate earth, and perhaps some day European colonists will return from the land of fever and fly, where their second generation hardly holds its own and the third fails, to take up this portion of their more legitimate heritage.

David George Hogarth, The Wandering Scholar (1925), p. 59.

As followers of The Lausanne Project will of course know, the Treaty of Sèvres was resoundingly rejected by Mustafa Kemal and sparked the Turkish War of Independence, which only ended with the signing of the Treaty of Lausanne and the founding of the Republic of Turkey in 1923. The Turkish delegation at Lausanne refused to negotiate over the inclusion of article 421 into the new treaty.

In 1922 the provisional Ankara government had published the book Pontus Meselesi, which traced the ancestry of the Turkish population in Anatolia back to the Hittites, thus establishing primacy over Greek and other linguistic and ethnic minorities. One of the lynchpins of the authors’ arguments was that Hittite was a Turanian language, a diffuse nineteenth-century term that vaguely denoted Central Asian languages or populations. However, in 1915 the Czech scholar Bedřich Hrozný had shown that Hittite was part of the Indo-European family of languages, a development with which the authors of Pontus Meselesi did not seem to be familiar. A book published to legitimise the fight for national independence against the Western allies and against its own minorities, thus relied (ironically) on outdated (Western) knowledge to construct a false lineage connecting the Bronze Age with the twentieth century and equating language with ethnic identity.

Neither the term ‘antiquity’ nor ‘archaeology’ is used in the text of the Treaty of Lausanne, and in 1923 Turkey assumed ownership of its own past and future.


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