If archaeological researchers travel to a country in which human rights are harshly violated, do they have a responsibility to speak out and act against such violations? Archaeologists are concerned with the study and preservation of humanity and material cultures of the past in the present; their very field of study thus exhibits a particular closeness to and concern with the protection and preservation of human life and cultures as well as the natural environment. Much has been said about archaeologists working under dictatorial regimes in the past (Mussolini, Hitler, Hoxha) or in conflict zones in general; less has been said, however, about archaeologists’ practices and responsibilities in contemporary societies afflicted with state repression, violence, and human rights violations. The case of Turkey is a glaring case in point.
State Oppression and Heritage Destruction
Since the electoral win of the People’s Democratic Party (Halkların Demokratik Partisi; HDP) in the elections of July 2015 and the breakdown of the peace process between the Turkish state and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê; PKK), the assaults on the Kurdish regions within Turkey as well as those in northern Syria have victimised hundreds of thousands through deliberate displacement and killings of civilians as well as the destruction, seizure, and looting of houses and agricultural lands. After the coup attempt in July 2016, Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and his ruling party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi; AKP) declared eight consecutive periods of a state of emergency (OHAL), each continuing for a duration of three months. The last three odd years have witnessed a crack-down on journalists, authors, teachers, academics, oppositional politicians (predominantly of the HDP including its former co-leaders Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ), people accused of membership in the Gülen movement, and anyone sharing critical or even humoristic posts about Erdoğan on social media. The official lifting of the state of emergency in July 2018 amounted to a normalization of this crack-down rather than an end to repression.
In January 2016, a group of over two thousand Turkish and foreign academics signed and published a statement opposing the state violence against Kurdish civilians in southeastern Turkey and calling for renewed peace negotiations. Most of the self-styled Academics for Peace (Barış için Akademisyenler; BAK) have subsequently fallen victim to harassment; they have been dismissed, detained, arrested, and prosecuted; they have lost their jobs and their passports, and many are living in exile or are barred from finding jobs in Turkey. Most university administrations, as well as educational institutions like the scientific and technological research council of Turkey (Türkiye Bilimsel ve Teknolojik Araştirma Kurumu; TÜBITAK) and the council of higher education (Yükseköğretim Kurulu; YÖK), have been complicit in this attack on academics in Turkey. In December 2017, trials against the signatories of the statement began and several academics have seen sentences of up to thirty-six months imposed upon them. As of the fourth of April 2019, 579 academics have stood trial: 128 were sentenced to one year and three months in prison; six academics to one year and six months; sixteen academics to one year, ten months and fifteen days; sixteen academics to two years and three months; five academics to two years and six months; three academics to two years and one month; and one academic to three years. If most of the sentences have been suspended, the fear of imprisonment and living a “civil death”–branded as terrorists, black-listed and/or exiled from the country–remain. Despite the severe repression, the Academics for Peace continue to stand in solidarity with each other and to oppose the repressive measures taken by the Turkish government.
Alongside the violation of civil liberties in recent years, the state’s actions are arguably responsible for the destruction of several cultural and natural heritage sites, as these sites are inherently bound up with the geopolitical and economic interests of the Turkish regime. Already in the years 2006-2009, the Sulukule neighbourhood in Istanbul was destroyed and its Roma inhabitants were forcefully displaced. In the past years, demolition of urban vegetable gardens near the Theodosian Land Walls (Yedikule bostanları) and at other places in Istanbul representing a cultural characteristic of communal life from Byzantine Constantinople until modern-day Istanbul continues unabated. These areas are now mostly intended for luxurious apartment complexes and shopping malls; a prime example of enforced neoliberal gentrification combined with heritage destruction. Civilian groups together with archaeologists have recurrently taken action in an effort to protect these urban gardens, some of which form part of the UNESCO World Heritage-designated Historic Areas of Istanbul. The state’s destruction of heritage in Istanbul is bound up with the oppression of specific ethnic communities as well as with its pursuit of economic interests.
Policies targeting cultural heritage are most forcefully implemented in the Kurdish regions of Turkey. Water control has come to play an increasingly important role in the geopolitical relations and the current conflicts in the Middle East. As part of its GAP-project (Güneydoğu Anadolu Projesi), the Turkish government has been keen on building numerous dams to be in control of the water flow of the rivers Euphrates and Tigris. One of the most controversial projects is the Ilisu Dam, the construction of which was completed only last year. Not only does it affect all the communities living in the territories fertilised by the water of the Euphrates and Tigris in Syria and Iraq, it is also threatening to flood the ancient town of Hasankeyf. Though civilian protests (Hasankeyf’i Yaşatma Girişimi–Initiative to Keep Hasankeyf Alive) received international support over the years, most of this support came from environmental organisations and activists rather than archaeologists. In February 2019, the European Court of Human Rights rejected an appeal to conserve the heritage site, because “there is not a universal individual right to the protection of cultural heritage.” Meanwhile, in December 2018, the breaking of the spillway gates of another dam, the Dicle dam, caused the flooding and destruction of parts of the Dicle neighbourhood in Diyarbakır as well as of the Hevsel Gardens which are listed as part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
In addition to the heritage damage caused by controversial dam projects, the assault on the Kurdish communities in Turkey after the break-down of the peace process with the PKK in the summer of 2015 has been devastating. Large sectionsof cities like Diyarbakır, Cizre and Nusaybin have been razed and thousands of citizens have been displaced. Sur, the ancient city centre of Diyarbakır, with its characteristic city walls and neighbouring Hevsel Gardens, was inscribed on the UNESCO List of World Heritage Sites in 2015, before it was damaged in the conflict only some two months after its inscription. Though the digging of trenches and placement of barricades and booby traps by PKK-forces in the Sur neighbourhoods contributed to this damage, most of the destruction of buildings and monuments in Sur was not inflicted during the conflict itself, but when Turkish security forces imposed strict control and curfews in the months after the official ending of the conflict in March 2016. Satellite imagery clearly demonstrates the extent of the destruction in Sur throughout these months. As in Istanbul, destroyed and erased urban areas are subsequently used for so-called urban regeneration projects. During the very same period, in July 2016, the fortieth session of the UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee took place in Istanbul–the destruction of Sur was not on the agenda. Instead, civil society groups like the Platform “No to the Destruction of Sur” (Sur’un Yıkımına Hayır Platformu) are at the forefront of efforts to preserve what is left of the cultural heritage of Sur, calling UNESCO to appropriate action and fighting for an end to the unjust expropriation and displacement of Sur’s citizens.
The invasion of the province of Afrin in northern Syria in March 2018 has seen a similar combination of violence, displacement of the citizen population, oppression of cultural and ethnic communities and the destruction of heritage sites. The Syro-Hittite temple of Ain Dara was hit by airstrikes of the Turkish Air Force, despite the denial by the Turkish government of all accusations. Additionally, important places of Kurdish culture and collective memory have been deliberately attacked by allies of the Turkish military: the statue of the mythical hero Kawa the Blacksmith standing in the centre of Afrin has been toppled and cemeteries and shrines of Alawite, Yazidi and other communities have been damaged.
Archaeologists and Human Rights in Turkey
In the context of these human rights violations and attacks on the lives of so many, should archaeologists travel to Turkey at all to carry out their research for a few weeks or months?
Can they stay on their archaeological sites to collect new data, year in, year out? Do not archaeologists have an ethical and professional obligation to recognise and act against the human rights violations and heritage destruction by the state and the oppressive conditions of the society in which their activities take place and with which they are ultimately bound up?
Let us return to the university administrations and state institutions of education, which have been complicit in the purge of thousands of academics, amongst whom are the Academics for Peace. Calls for an institutional boycott by academic researchers have already been ignited. It is important to note that this academic boycott is deliberately an institutional one in order not to harm individual academic researchers and students working at these universities. Student exchanges, collaborations with researchers and students in Turkey and visiting fellowships are therefore not part of the boycott. In fact, they should be encouraged: academic isolation would be an undesirable and unjust consequence for academics and students within Turkey who are acting in (or trying to act in) good faith. Like all academics, then, archaeologists should consider carefully with which universities and educational institutes in Turkey they are collaborating (conferences, institutional collaborations etc.) in order not to give support to institutional pressures intended to devastate the lives of so many colleagues and fellow students.
If this academic boycott is able to target specific institutional bodies in order not to harm the researchers and students working in those institutions, then the relations between institutions and archaeological projects seem much more difficult to disentangle. Almost any archaeological project involves foreign archaeologists and students, archaeologists and students from Turkey, workers from local communities and (representatives of) the Ministry of Culture and Tourism. Recent regulations have stipulated that at least half of any team working on a project in Turkey needs to be from a Turkish background and every project is required to have a co-director from Turkey. Archaeological research in Turkey needs the permission of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism and it is mandatory for all excavation and survey projects to be presented at an annual conference (Kazı Sonuçları Toplantısı; Araştırma Sonuçları Toplantısı), organised by the same ministry, followed by a publication in the proceedings of these annual meetings. How, then, can archaeologists cope with the fact that they will have to put themselves in a dependent position vis-à-vis a state which is committing war crimes and human rights violations?
Following the aforementioned academic boycott, one option is to initiate a wholesale boycott of archaeological research in Turkey. Though this may sound extreme, there are precedents: South-African and foreign archaeologists participated in a general academic boycott targeting the South-African Apartheid regime leading up to the first World Archaeological Congress. More recently, archaeologists and NGO’s have refused to collaborate with the Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums of Syria due to its affiliation with the Assad regime. One of the difficulties with any such boycott is the potential of archaeologists and students in those countries to be isolated. It is vital, therefore, that a potential boycott is realised in collaboration with, and with the approval of, archaeologists, students, and workers in Turkey. However, in light of the current purges and state oppression which have made any oppositional voice a “terrorist” one, it is unlikely that such a boycott would be openly supported in Turkey. It is at this point rather easy for archaeologists from abroad to dismiss any kind of action by hiding behind the argument that colleagues and students in Turkey will be isolated and harmed as a result. The argument turns into an excuse for inaction and indifference.
Archaeologists for Human Rights in Turkey
The entanglement of the Turkish state’s assaults on ethnic and cultural minorities, displacement of citizens in state-controlled areas and the targeted destruction of natural and cultural heritage amounts to acts which are referred to as cultural genocide, after the term originally coined by Raphael Lemkin. It is disturbing that archaeologists working in Turkey, who may be expected to be amongst the most passionate about the protection and preservation of humanity, communal life, natural and cultural archaeological sites and tangible and intangible heritage remain silent about the recent violations of human rights and the destruction of heritage in Turkey. Although a wholesale boycott of archaeological research in Turkey may have the undesired effect of isolating researchers and communities, the international archaeological community can do much more to support and stand in solidarity with purged colleagues and students, and with civil society groups in their struggle to protect human lives, oppressed communities and cultural heritage.
Archaeologists, like other academics, should therefore support the general institutional boycott of university administrations and educational institutions in Turkey which have been complicit in the purge of academics. It is equally important to create opportunities and find ways of supporting academics, students and civil society groups either within or outside Turkey. Student exchanges, collaborations with researchers and research fellowships for academics and students from Turkey are pertinent. The creation of such opportunities to work in other countries only increases in importance as the number of (young) people fleeing Turkey and requesting asylum-status in EU countries (and beyond) grows by the day. However, if they are solely left to the vicissitudes of competition and meritocracy, opportunities will tend to favour those at prominent universities, and those who are most competent in the English language. They should, therefore, prioritise the most vulnerable scholars and students; that is, those who are of a lower socio-economic status, live in exile, have been purged from their positions or are under severe threat of detention.
Foreign archaeologists in Turkey should, however, not limit such support to academic spheres. As indicated in the above, if international institutions like UNESCO and ECHR remain unsurprisingly reliant on its “state parties” or unsupportive, most of the fiercest struggles to preserve and protect natural and cultural heritage are being fought by civilians and civil society organisations within Turkey. Little attention is paid to such struggles in academic and institutional circles of archaeologists. (Online) platforms to disseminate information about these efforts to a wider audience and to make the voices of these civilian groups fighting for heritage protection heard, louder and farther, can increase awareness about these struggles in the international community. They can also support efforts to pressure foreign institutions, including UNESCO, to take appropriate action vis-à-vis oppressive and destructive “state parties” like the current Turkish regime.
Finally, in a society where the government perceives archaeological sites primarily as money-making tourist attractions and treasure hunting thrives viciously, archaeology and heritage are reduced to mere commodities. Without attributing other forms of value to heritage sites and archaeological objects, there is little incentive to protect the historical and natural environment. After all, the commodification of heritage sites and archaeological objects means they are perceived as replaceable–by other sites or objects, or by modern reconstructions. Combining archaeological projects with educational programmes–for instance, for children from neighbouring schools and workers from nearby communities–can serve the creation of alternative narratives about the relationship between, and value of, humanity, heritage and community. Through boycotting institutions complicit in academic purges and meanwhile supporting civil society within Turkey through the creation and distribution of alternative narratives about heritage and society’s relationship to the past–in Turkey, abroad and online–foreign archaeologists can contribute to the struggle for human rights and the defence of civil society, shoulder to shoulder with their colleagues in Turkey.
 Michael L. Galaty and Charles Watkinson (eds), Archaeology under Dictatorship (Springer, 2004).
 Peter Ucko, Academic Freedom and Apartheid: the Story of the World Archaeological Congress (Duckworth, 1987).