Turkey punishes Austrian archaeologists for sins of its politicians

The monumental Library of Celsus is one of the many attractions that draw millions to Ephesus every year. [LWYang/Flickr]

The Turkish government has rescinded Austria’s excavation licence for the ancient city of Ephesus. The seemingly politically-motivated decision has caused outrage in the archaeological community. EURACTIV Germany reports.

In ancient times, the city of Ephesus was one of the largest and most important settlements in Asia Minor and counted one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World among its monumental buildings. When it was founded, the city was directly on the coast, but due to climatic change and seismic activity, the sea gradually retreated several kilometres to the west.

Today, Ephesus is one of the most visited archaeological sites in the world and in 2015 was elevated to World Heritage Site status by UNESCO. Since 1895, more than 120 years ago, Austrian archaeologists and scientists have worked day-in day-out to excavate some of the best preserved Roman ruins in the world.

EU countries failing to protect cultural heritage

The European Commission has given eight EU countries just two months to incorporate into national law new rules on returning cultural items illegally taken from other member states. Failure to comply will mean the beginning of legal action. EURACTIV Spain reports.

But now their licence to carry out their work has been cancelled by Turkish authorities, just before they were due to recommence their painstaking excavations. Sabine Ladstätter, director of the Austrian Archaeology Institute, received a letter from Turkey’s Ministry of Culture informing her team that permission had been revoked two months ahead of schedule and asking them to leave the site.

The decision not only affects the 12 Austrian archaeologists working at the site, the team is composed of 200 researchers from 20 different countries, as well as using the services of 55 Turkish support staff.

It appears that the industrious and highly-skilled individuals working at Ephesus are being punished by a Turkish government looking to respond to criticisms made by Austrian politicians and calls made by the alpine republic’s chancellor, Christian Kern, for the EU to cancel accession negotiations.

Austria suggests 'union of interests' with Turkey instead of EU membership

One of Austria’s ruling political parties has proposed a “union of interests” between the EU and Turkey, in place of actual membership. EURACTIV Germany reports.

The fact that political disagreements have spilled over into the world of culture and science has led many to shake their head in disbelief.

Austria’s former Minister of Science, Karlheinz Töchterle, said “Science and research have always been a uniting force that can bridge gaps during difficult times.”

Turkey could well live to rue their decision to expel the archaeologists, given the incredible work successive generations have done at the site, unearthing ancient wonders like the Temple of Artemis, the Great Theatre, the Temple of Hadrian and the Library of Celsus.

As a result, Ephesus is arguably the most impressive European historical site outside of Rome and can boast massive revenues from entrance fees. In 2013, nearly two million people strolled down the ancient streets of the city, bringing over €3 million with them.

Austria has already indicated that its representatives will try and meet with their Turkish counterparts in an effort to try and re-normalise relations and hopefully regain access to the site.

Ephesus was first rediscovered towards the end of the 19th century, when a British-led team discovered sculpture fragments that they later identified to be remains from the monumental Temple of Artemis.

The temple, which is marked by a solitary column today, was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, along with the Great Pyramid at Giza, the Statue of Zeus, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, The Lighthouse at Pharos, Colossus of Rhodes and the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, also in Turkey.

Ephesus was first founded over a thousand years as a Greek colony on Asia Minor's western coast, before coming under the influence of the Romans in the 2nd century BC.

Cultural heritage and archaeology bring millions of visitors to Turkey every year and the country has a long history of collaborating with foreign teams on sites. Ephesus, Pergamon and what is believed to be the remains of the semi-mythical city of Troy are prime examples where European experts have contributed to hugely significant discoveries.

Subscribe to our newsletters