Tourism push threatens Turkey’s ancient sites

The age-old battle pitting historical preservation against tourism infrastructure development is coming to a fever pitch in Turkey. In an effort to increase tourism, which is set to earn Turkey $21 billion in 2011, the Turkish government recently transferred some archeological excavation permits from non-Turkish to Turkish universities. This unprecedented move, according to The Art Newspaper, is “a cracking of the whip over foreign scholars regarded as not working fast enough to transform the country’s extensive array of antiquities into tourist attractions.”

Turkey lays claim to an impressive catalog of antiquities, ranging from Greek and Roman ruins to the remains of ancient Hittite settlements to Byzantine and medieval Arab treasures. Its most famous archeological attraction is Ephesus, an ancient Greek and Roman city and the home of the Library of Celsus, one of the most iconic ruins of ancient Rome. Ephesus attracts more than two million visitors each year making it the perfect example for both sides of the preservation vs. tourism debate.

Infrastructure development to handle both the influx of tourists and the increased urbanization of Turkey’s populacealso threatens Turkey’s cultural heritage. For example, seven years ago, workers building a new station for the Istanbul metro system uncovered a Byzantine harbor which included the ruins of 32 buried ships. While a work stoppage was ordered to preserve these artifacts, Turkish officials, particularly Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan who complained that “bits of old potsherds” were getting in the way of development, have grown weary with the slow progress of infrastructure projects. Other antiquities, such as the ancient Roman spa town of Allianoi, have already become victims to Turkey’s efforts to modernize. Allianoi now lies buried beneath the Ilya River as part of the Yortanlı Dam project.

In recent years, Turkey has emerged as one of the world’s fastest growing economies as well as an increasingly popular destination for tourists. It shall be interesting to see how Turkey’s antiquities fare as these two factors force the country towards more development.

Photo © Melanie Renzulli