A German-Ottoman Scramble for Objects in ar-Raqqa. Antiquities Trade, Archaeological Looting and Museum Rivalry in the Late Ottoman Empire

Extraction of the Great Sarcophagus (İskender Sarcophagus) from the Sidon Necropolis. Hamdi Bey, O./Reinach, T. (edd.) (1892): Une nécropole royale à Sidon. Fouilles de Hamdy Bey, Paris: Ernest Leroux, p. 60.

A German-Ottoman Scramble for Objects in ar-Raqqa. Antiquities Trade, Archaeological Looting and Museum Rivalry in the Late Ottoman Empire

Author: Sebastian Willert

23 April 2021

“Since I arrived at Halep [Aleppo] I have been seeing valuable antiquities in many houses. Telegrams I receive from Raqqa indicate that antiquity smuggling is pervasive.”[1] In his telegram of 24 October 1910, Hüseyin Kâzım Kadrî (1870–1934) reported on the treatment of antique objects and ancient remains in the region which constituted Halep Vilâyeti (Vilâyet Aleppo). The cable’s addressee was Halil Edhem Eldem (1861–1938), who had only been director of the Müze-i Hümayun (Imperial Museum) in Istanbul for a few months in succession of his brother Osman Hamdi Bey (1842–1910). Hüseyin Kadrî and Halil Edhem agreed that the ancient remains in the Ottoman Empire must be comprehensively protected. The proponents of the Young Turk revolution tried to propagate the necessity of protecting cultural assets and architecture within the Ottoman realm during the short phase of the İkinci Meşrûtiyyet Devri (Second Constitutional Era).

During the reign of Abdülhamid II, the Sultan frequently had resorted to ancient objects as bargaining chips to promote diplomatic relations. However, it was not only the practice of rule with regard to the handling of cultural assets that was to change as it was not only the Sultan’s practice of diplomatic gifts that threatened the ancient objects and sites. Ancient remains were used as quarries for extensive construction projects such as the Baghdad Railway. But parts of the local population also resorted to the stone and marble material of ancient sites as a supply of building materials (Çelik 2016, 3; Shaw 2003, 35–44). Furthermore, in the course of the 19th century, the exodus of antique objects and parts of ancient architecture to European and American museums intensified. After the investigations of ancient sites by diplomats and explorers and the translocation of important objects, initially mainly to London and Paris, the intertwining of scientific expeditions and excavations with the imperative desire to translocate the most prestigious and important objects to the museums emerged and professionalised. The desire for the ownership and exhibition of valuable antique objects was based on a tradition of cultural appropriation that had already emerged in the 18th century (Eldem 2011, 281). The establishment of archaeology as a academic discipline during the 19th century led to an increasing number of expeditions and excavations within the Ottoman Empire. The realm Istanbul claimed to dominate contained relics of various ancient civilisations from more than 4,000 years of settlement (Özel/Karadayi 1998, 20-1). In addition to the scientific interest in knowledge production, European and American scientists also focused on increasing and extending the collections of antique objects in museums. A scramble for objects emerged, awakening the desire to acquire the most prestigious assets. The exploitation of archaeological sites and antiquities developed into a tool of imperialistic pervasion of the Ottoman Empire. Collecting and displaying antiquities in museums became an allegory for cultural superiority and the intensifying international competition involved close collaborations between archaeologists, diplomats, merchants, and the military.

After a period of ignorance, Istanbul also strove to participate in the competition. Following the Müze-i Hümayun’s establishment in 1869 and a first legal code for the protection of antiquities in the same year, efforts intensified with the appointment of the first Ottoman museum director Osman Hamdi Bey in 1881. First attempts to appropriate significant ancient objects for Istanbul failed at Nemrut Dağı (Mount Nemrut), but the Ottoman museum director demonstrated that circumstances for foreign archaeologists on the territory of the Ottoman Empire were about to change (Willert 2021a). A stricter antiquities law in 1884 was followed by locating the Sidon necropolis and the immediate extraction and translocation of a collection of valuable sarcophagi to Istanbul.

View of the entrance area of the Müze-i Hümayun’s new building in Istanbul, opened in 1891. Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/

Osman Hamdi took advantage of important finds like the İskender Sarcophagus and the Sarcophagus of the Mourning Women to justify the Müze-i Hümayun’s extension. Until 1891, Osman Hamdi published little about the finds to increase curiosity about the significance of the objects (Makdisi 2011, 272; Çelik, 2016, 51). With the opening of the museum building, the exhibition of the important sarcophagi and the publication of Une nécropole royale à Sidon (Hamdi Bey/Reinach 1892), the Ottoman museum director succeeded in positioning the Müze-i Hümayun as an important player: “Osman Hamdi’s goal to place the Imperial Museum on the map of international scholarship succeeded at a remarkable pace, following the inauguration of the new buildings and despite a wave of bitter reactions against the Ottoman claims to antiquities” (Çelik 2016, 7).

Nevertheless, translocations to European and American museums continued under Abdülhamid’s rule. Also flourished the antiquities trade within the Ottoman realm. As a result of the Mshatta façade’s translocation to Berlin (Troelenberg 2016, 61–84), Osman Hamdi and his brother Halil Edhem, whom the Ottoman museum director had appointed vice-director in the meantime, devoted themselves to the stricter regulation of the antiquities law. The 1884 legal corpus was extended in 1906 and prohibited the trafficking and export of ancient objects without permission of the Sublime Porte, thus providing the Müze-i Hümayun with a monopoly on the investigation and appropriation of antiquities (Eldem 2011, 289; Özel/Karadayi 1998, 20-3; Yoltar-Yıldırım 2006, 191). The European powers tried in vain to prevent ratification through joint diplomatic intervention. Even before and after the publication of the law in 1906 and in defiance of Ottoman legislation, German diplomats and museum staff participated in translocations of antiquities to Germany (Willert 2021b).

The telegram quoted at the beginning refers to the difficulties of being able to adequately control the antiquities trade on Ottoman soil. In short lines, Vali Hüseyin Kâzım Kadrî linked the abundance of various antique objects in Aleppo with telegrams from ar-Raqqa reporting on local illicit antiquities trafficking. Providing Halil Edhem with a reference to the antiquities trade’s impact on the monument protection in the Ottoman realm, Hüseyin Kâzım consequently demanded efficient measures for the obviation of the ancient objects’ ongoing destruction and translocation. In his telegram he went on: “Apparently, anyone who wishes to dig there takes valuable antiquities and sells them for profit. Since the gendarmes are limited in number and can hardly patrol the roads and villages, it is not possible to have guards on the site. Thus, people dig, steal, and sell. Obviously, you are informed about the antiquities and the ancient city ruins here. If provisions are granted to the provincial government, an officer could be dispatched to protect the antiquities, or a guard could be appointed to keep an eye on the site. If this is not possible, we must determine a method of procedure with special instructions. I am looking forward to your response.”[2] In summary, it can be stated that Hüseyin Kâzım pointed out to Halil Edhem the shortcomings of the Ottoman legislation on antiquities. Kâzım found numerous flats and houses filled with ancient objects. He also warned that the illegal antiquities trade flourished. But in order to be able to adequately protect the antiquities, the Vali did not have the necessary resources. He therefore demanded to increase the presence of the Müze-i Hümayun. Thus, funds to finance gendarmes and guards whose sole purpose was to protect the antiquities were needed.

The draft of Halil Edhem’s reply dated 3 December 1910 is preserved in the archives of İstanbul Arkeoloji Müzesi Kütüphanesi (Istanbul Archaeological Museum’s Library). Halil Edhem pointed out that the situation as described by the Vali was symptomatic for numerous provinces of the Ottoman Empire. The Müze-i Hümayun’s director therefore launched Ottoman expeditions and excavations in order to move the ancient objects to Istanbul to incorporate them into the museum’s collection. Apparently, after two excavation campaigns already carried out in 1905–06 and 1908, it was not possible for the Müze-i Hümayun to raise the necessary funds for further excavations in ar-Raqqa (Yoltar-Yıldırım 2006, 191). Nevertheless, Halil Edhem held out the prospect of guards protecting the excavation area in the future. He instructed Kâzım to show no tolerance towards illegal excavations. Nevertheless, the antiquities law would not yet be implemented by all government officials in the provinces, so Halil further instructed the Ministry of Education to strongly command local authorities to monitor compliance with the law and take action against illegal activities (Imperial Museum draft letter: Yoltar-Yıldırım 2006, 203). Halil Edhem’s answer illustrated the Ottoman museum directorate’s commitment to make use of all means to fight the prevailing antiquities trade as well as the accompanying illegal archaeological excavations. However, he also stressed the problem of the objective’s feasibility: due to the Müze-i Hümayun’s financial situation, it could not carry out excavations to the desired extent. It was financially not able to acquire objects from endangered regions. In consequence, attempts were to be made with modest means. However, large-scale excavations like those of European or American excavation campaigns could not be undertaken. Even though the deployment of guards was strongly desired, once more, insufficient funding and staffing were obstacles. So how did the situation in ar-Raqqa develop?

Significant information on the situation in the Vilâyet Aleppo, the antiquities trafficking and, in particular, the acquisitions in the antiquities trade as well as the control of foreign archaeologists in the Ottoman Empire by the local authorities can be obtained from the archives of the German explorer and excavator Max von Oppenheim (1860–1946). Just a short time after Hüseyin Kadrî sent his telegram to Halil Edhem, Max von Oppenheim travelled to ar-Raqqa as part of an excursion undertaken from his excavation site at Tell Halaf. In his diary, Oppenheim reported on extensive archaeological lootings in ar-Raqqa. The holes of the illegal excavations would dominate the landscape – even to such an extent that a rider would have to pay close attention to the path of his horse: “During my visit this year, I found the area of excavations in the interior of the city expanded by a significant amount. In the most cavalier manner, people work even in broad daylight, ostensibly to dig for building blocks for their houses, but in reality, to collect antiquities. The whole ground is covered with holes, so that one can only ride in the area with the greatest caution, and only on very specific well-trodden paths.”[3]

Syria, Raqqa governorate, Raqqa district, Oblique Aerial View, 13×18 cm, glass plate. Dated 25 May 1935. IFPO – Institut Français du Proche-Orient. Licence Ouverte.

The extent of illegal excavations must have been comparable to those photographed some twenty years later: In an aerial photograph taken by the French Armée du Levant (Army of the Levant) in 1935, holes of illegal excavations within the ancient site in the district of ar-Raqqa are clearly visible and extend over the entire inner area of the ancient complex. The photograph is also an indication that neither the Ottoman nor later the French mandate authorities were able to take effective action against the illegal antiquities trade.

Oppenheim took a keen interest in the excavations in ar-Raqqa. He travelled to the district’s ancient remains not only for scientific surveys but also to satisfy his desire as a collector of antiquities. Though complaining about the scale and impact of the illicit archaeological excavations, the German excavator undertook several on-site purchases of antique objects and, therefore, participated and supported the local illicit antiquities trade. One of the major obstacles for Oppenheim, however, was the export of the objects he had purchased from the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman authorities suspected that Oppenheim would smuggle antiquities. In a report written on 12 June 1913, Walter Rößler (1871–1929), German consul in Aleppo, referred to a notification of Oppenheim, in which the excavator announced “10 boxes and 6 other loads in bags (including 5 stone capitals) to be sent for safekeeping through the kindness of Mr Nasir Ali, representative of the American company Max Andrews Forbes KG.”[4] However, contrary to expectations, Rößler did not receive the transport but a letter by Nasir Ali, stating that Oppenheim’s transport had been confiscated in ar-Raqqa by Ottoman gendarmes. The seizure gained diplomatic explosiveness as the Ottoman foreign ministry sent requests to the German Embassy in Istanbul. Rößler was asked by the German ambassador to write a report in which he stressed that Oppenheim had given him “no information in detail about the contents [of the transport, note SW], in particular he did not indicate to me [Rößler] whether he had the permission of the Ottoman authorities for his transport, which could be the case if he was dealing with duplicates from Tell Halaf or if the contents were destined for the museum in Constantinople.”[5] On the condition that Rößler claimed to know nothing about the contents of the transport, he suggested “[u]nder these circumstances, to refrain from taking any steps with the authorities for the time being and to await Mr. von Oppenheim’s applications.”[6] Rößler expected that the general administration of the Müze-i Hümayun would also be informed about the seizure, as “the Kaïmmakam of Rakka, as stated in the letter of Nasir Ali, contacted Aleppo.”[7] Eventually, the Ottoman authorities informed the directorate of the Müze-i Hümayun in August 1913 about the confiscation of Oppenheim’s transport stating that: “We asked that Halep Province make the necessary inquiries regarding the 11 caskets of antiquities and 5 stones that were confiscated in Raqqa from Baron Oppenheim, the excavator of Tell Halaf. We asked also that the results of these inquiries be sent to us.”[8] In December 1913, the Ottoman authorities shipped the confiscated objects to Istanbul, where they were included into the collection of the Müze-i Hümayun.

After Hüseyin Kâzım Kadrî arrived in Aleppo province in 1910 (Kuneralp 2003, 80), the ancient site of ar-Raqqa was already a centre of illegal excavations and one of many hubs for the antiquities trade in the Ottoman realm. Known for its important ceramics, the region was the target of numerous illegal excavations, as the ancient objects were in demand in European and American museums. The lucrative antiquities trade encouraged archaeological lootings. In consequence, an extensive destruction of the antiquities and ancient sites in ar-Raqqa erupted (Yoltar-Yıldırım 2006, 191). Even Oppenheim stated: “It is well known that the potteries of Rakka flood the antiquities market of the major European cities.”[9] Although the German excavator was aware of the negative consequences of illegal excavations, he nevertheless fostered the illicit antiquities trade through his purchases. Hüseyin Kâzım reported his impressions of a pervasive and illegal antiquities trade around the ancient site of ar-Raqqa to Halil Edhem Eldem. The correspondence between the Vali of Aleppo and the museum director in Istanbul sheds light on the Ottoman efforts but also incapability to effectively prevent the illegal trafficking of antiquities. The Sublime Porte and the Müze-i Hümayun had insufficient resources to provide enough personnel to adequately protect the ancient sites from looting (Özel/Karadayi 1998, 20-2). Nevertheless, Halil Edhem succeeded in supporting the Müze-i Hümayun as a sovereign actor by promoting efforts to control foreign museum activities within the Ottoman realm and antiquities dealers regarding the acquisition of ancient objects. The Ottoman Empire’s more restrictive art policy made it increasingly difficult to acquire antiquities and export them (Bahrani/Çelik/Eldem 2011, 13).

The Ottoman authorities were well aware of the ongoing archaeological looting and illicit antiquities trade, but not able to protect the ancient sites effectively and comprehensively. Yet, Halil Edhem tried to ensure the protection of sites and objects. Any controls of explorers by Ottoman gendarmes served on the one hand to curb the illegal trade in antiquities. But they also represented a method of filling Müze-i Hümayun’s collection with valuable antiquities without spending financial resources on costly excavations. The interest of the German and Ottoman actors involved was shaped and dominated by the desire to appropriate antiquities.

[1] Yoltar-Yıldırım, A. (2006): Appendix 1: The Ottoman Response to Illicit Digging in Raqqa, in: Marilyn Jenkins-Madina (ed.), Raqqa Revisited. Ceramics of Ayyubid Syria, New York 2006, pp. 191–220, here p. 202. Original: İstanbul Arkeoloji Müzesi Kütüphanesi, box 9, dossier 3021/ Document No. 89.

[2] Ibid.

[3] RWWA (Rheinisch-Westfälisches Wirtschaftsarchiv), NL MvO Nr. 255, fol. 207, Diary Höfges Trip to Djebel Abd el Aziz, 11 May 1913.

[4] PA-AA (Politisches Archiv des Auswärtigen Amts), K Aleppo 6/3, Band 3 Teil II, o.fol., Report Rößler, Aleppo, 12 June 1913.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Yoltar-Yıldırım, A. (2006): Appendix 1: The Ottoman Response to Illicit Digging in Raqqa, in: Marilyn Jenkins-Madina (ed.), Raqqa Revisited. Ceramics of Ayyubid Syria, New York 2006, pp. 191–220, here p. 207. Original: IAML, box 64, dossier 5880, n.p., Director of Higher Education to Directorate of the Imperial Museum, Aleppo, 20 August 1913.

[9] PA-AA, K Aleppo 6/4 Band 4 Teil II, fol. 231v., Oppenheim to von Mutius, Berlin, 25 January 1914.


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Sebastian Willert studied history in Gießen, Bremen and Hannover. Currently he is finishing his PhD at the Technical University of Berlin, Department of Modern Art History. He visited the Orient-Institut Istanbul in March 2020 as Fellow of the Max Weber Foundation’s Gerald D. Feldman Travel Grants. At the moment, he is PhD Fellow at the Orient-Institut Istanbul working on his thesis “Cultural Imperialism versus Protectionism? On the Role of Antiquities as a Matter of Conflict within the German-Ottoman Art Policy between 1890 and 1918”.

Citation: Willert, Sebastian. “A German-Ottoman Scramble for Objects in ar-Raqqa. Antiquities Trade, Archaeological Looting and Museum Rivalry in the Late Ottoman Empire,” Orient-Institut Istanbul Blog, 23 April 2021. https://www.oiist.org/a-german-ottoman/

Islamicate world; Ottoman Empire; Turkey; 19th & 20st century; research project; German-Ottoman relations; archaeology; museology; OII-History & Life Narratives