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Ancient connections bring a modern rapprochement 28 juillet 2011

Posted by Acturca in History / Histoire, South East Europe / Europe du Sud-Est, Turkey / Turquie.
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International Herald Tribune, Thursday, July 28, 2011

Susanne Fowler, Istanbul

Turkey and Greece find common ground in an exhibit on their past

In a rare display of cross-cultural cooperation between countries with a history of discord, an exhibition at the Sakip Sabanci Museum this summer represents the first official collaboration by museums from Turkey and Greece.
The show, « Across: The Cyclades and Western Anatolia During the 3rd Millennium B.C., » features antiquities from both sides of the Aegean Sea, including ancient idols, clay tankards, weapons, cooking utensils and jewelry.

The process of gathering the materials from both countries, curators say, has helped researchers shed new light on the exchange of goods and ideas between the 5,000-year-old civilizations in western Anatolia and the Greek islands known as the Cyclades, where livestock was raised and where lentils, olives, figs and almonds were cultivated as traders crossed what Homer called the wine dark sea.

It is a region where political and territorial disputes persist – many Aegean islands have both a Greek and a Turkish name – and where visa issues can complicate modern-day travel for Turks trying to reach the European Union.

Nazan Olcer, director of the Sabanci Museum and a co-curator of the show, said in a statement that « we want this to be an event which will overcome the residual prejudices of past years and be an invitation to share our pride in this past. »
Curators say the « Across » exhibit, with about 340 pieces on display, is the first time that artifacts from museums like the National Archaeological Museum in Athens are being displayed next to objects from collections like that of the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations in Ankara.

The co-curator, Nicholas Stampolidis of the N.P. Goulandris Foundation Museum of Cycladic Art in Athens, said the exhibit offered visitors « the best of what scientific archaeological research has produced in the last hundred years. »
Of particular interest, he said in a statement, are « masterpieces like the white crystalline marble idols of the Cyclades, » shown along with their Asian counterparts, and whose simple shapes are said to have inspired 20th-century artists like Picasso and Giacometti.

The figures have attracted not just researchers and collectors, but also looters who would take them from burial sites.
Another highlight of the exhibit is a 14-meter-long modern-day replica of a Cyladic ship of the type used along the Aegean coastlines. The ship was built like the original, without nails or glue, by students of the Ankara University Research Center for Maritime Archaeology. The replica is on display in a cavernous room where the architect Boris Micka uses lighting effects to emulate the waves of the sea.

How did the students know what the Cycladic vessels looked like? Existing images are found primarily on ceramic objects known as Cycladic « frying pans. » Carvings on the round, flat artifacts provide some of the few clues to how the ancient mariners moved from island to coast and back again.

The role of such boats can not be underestimated in learning about life in the era, Dr. Olcer said. « Boats were the main tool in daily life of these people. On the islands and the seaside, » she said. « Trade, social contacts, even wars were carried out by boat. It was not always a friendly time. Sometimes they had to defend themselves or attack the others. The boat was the tool of all these contacts. »

The boat was constructed – using the images that survive on the ceramics – under the auspices of a Turkish scientific team from the University of Ankara. The team was led by Professor Hyat Erkanal at the Urla-Liman Tepe site near Izmir, and it used pine planks sewn together by ropes of sisal, a vegetable fiber.

Short lines on the « frying pans » were thought by experts to represent oars. So replica oars were made of pine, a lightweight wood common to the area that also would swell when wet, critical for keeping the boat afloat since no metal nails or joints were used. Ropes were coated with juniper tar and, on the hull, a paste of tallow, charcoal dust and goat hair was applied to help stem leaks. Researchers discovered that the paste also helped the vessel glide faster.

« Then, with 18 young people at the oars, they tried to row with it some distance and it worked, » Dr. Olcer said.
The sea trial may have been easier than getting the replica inside the museum. « It came from Izmir on a big truck whose length was extended to carry this, » Dr. Olcer said. « But getting it from the front gate of the museum into the exhibition hall was more difficult. It took us 11 hours just to bring it up the hill. And we had to remove one of the facade windows to get it in. Some walls had to be removed and rebuilt, but it was all worth it because seeing the boat, touching it, brings you closer to a past reality. » That the exhibit came together at all is something of a political miracle. It involved the highest-ranking cultural officials from two countries with a history of enmity.

Dr. Olcer said that « the museum world is a limited one in which everyone knows everyone and our paths keep crossing, » she said. The first contact was in 2010, she said, as Istanbul was celebrating its year as European capital of culture and she was organizing the exhibit, « From Byzantium to Istanbul: 8,000 Years of a Capital. »

During the process, she said, Dr. Stampolidis in Athens offered a swap: He would send Cycladic works from his museum to Turkey if she would send the Sabanci’s extensive Ottoman calligraphy collection to Greece.

The exchange allowed access in Istanbul to the unique collection by Nicholas and Dolly Goulandris, Greeks who had donated their surprisingly modern-looking figurines to the Athens museum.

Then the idea grew to approaching the National Archeological Museum in Athens because it held the results of many relevant excavations.

« But I was not comfortable that we should only display the Greek material, » Dr. Olcer said. « The closeness of these islands to the Anatolian mainland and Asia Minor awoke in me the wish to include also the Turkish part of that story. »
« Only then could we study the close contacts in terms of trade, social life, social events, etcetera. So it would be the first time ever that a common project was undertaken on this period of history. »

« It seemed impossible at the beginning, » she added, but the « mutual dream » of Dr. Olcer and Dr. Stampolidis became reality with the support of the Turkish and Greek antiquities authorities and Nikolaos Kaltsas of the National Archaeological Museum in Athens.

The scholars performing the excavations, Dr. Olcer said, « were really enthusiastic and for the first time both sides came together at the Sabanci Museum to discuss the idea and establish the concept of the exhibition. I’ll never forget that day. They all knew each other by name but had never before met in person. »

Many of the Turkish items on display for the first time, like golden and silver needles for hair and certain ceramics, were the results of recent digs, « so hadn’t even been inventoried yet, » she said.

« They were ‘sleeping’ in the depot rooms because they had only been found in the past two or three years, » she said. « Other pieces came from museums, but many had never been on display before and come together here, side by side with their Greek brothers and sisters, in the same display case for the first time. »

« Across » is on display through Oct. 30. After that, another first: The Sabanci’s extensive collection of Ottoman calligraphy will be heading to Greece early next year.

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