On 19 August an Englishman was arrested when leaving Turkey in possession of 12 ancient coins. He had found the coins while snorkelling on holiday and was stopped by security at Bodrum Airport. On the face of it, the arrest looks to be a completely disproportionate response to a trivial infraction, punishing a naive holidaymaker for an innocent mistake in misappropriating a handful of old coins. But take a step back for a minute, reflect upon the broader context, and the Turkish action looks justifiable, commendable even.
Since 2014, the international community has been concerned about the terrorist group Daesh (Islamic State) profiting from the sale of looted and trafficked antiquities. Much of this material has passed from Syria into Turkey, and then on to Europe. From seizures made inside Turkey, it is known that the bulk comprises ancient coins. Many of these trafficked coins are likely being sold on eBay and other websites by traders based in the United Kingdom (England to be precise). In March 2015, for example, a Daily Mail investigation headlined ‘2000-year-old artefacts looted by ISIS from ancient sites in Iraq and Syria are being sold on EBAY’, with images of Syrian coins selling for between £57 and £90 each (though not actually looted by Daesh). Turkey is under international pressure to choke this Daesh income stream by stopping the trade passing through its territory. In these circumstances, an Englishman secretly moving ancient coins out of the country must be a viable suspect, one to be held pending further investigation. Maybe he is part of a larger trafficking ring operating out of England? Presumably he will be proved innocent, and the coins will be shown not to have originated in Syria, though taking Turkish coins is in itself an offence. But it is important to know that in the fight against terrorism the Turkish border authorities are doing their job, acting with competence and vigilance when the easy option would have been to confiscate the coins and wave the tourist through. In the United Kingdom, we would expect nothing less of our own border force. The man is now in custody in Turkey. Hopefully he will be released sometime soon. After all, it is not in Turkey’s interest to be frightening away innocent tourists. But we must remember, like most other countries of the world, Turkish public services have been hollowed out by austerity-driven budget cuts, and the release process might take longer than we would like.
Assuming he is innocent, and that Turkey has acted correctly in accordance with international expectations, is anybody to blame? There is endless talk in policy circles of reducing demand for ancient coins and other antiquities by raising public awareness of the issues and risks involved in their trade. But no one seems to have raised the arrested man’s awareness. Flight operators and holiday agencies do nothing to alert customers to the dangers of acquiring ancient coins and antiquities. There is nothing to be seen on the pages of in-flight magazines. Indeed, the opposite is sometimes the case. The British government has done nothing to warn holidaymakers. Where are the announcements in newspapers or on prime-time television? Where are the notices at airport departure desks? There has been much tough talk about the need to stop Daesh from profiting from the antiquities trade, but little concrete action. So rather than criticising Turkey for taking a strong stand against antiquities trafficking, we should look closer to home and ask what more can be done to prevent holidaymakers from breaking the law of foreign countries, and why the British government is not acting to stop its citizens from inadvertently committing illegal acts while abroad. English sellers of trafficked ancient coins must also share some of the blame as they have helped create the problem in the first place. Coins are only trafficked because people are there to buy and sell them. But by their actions they have also raised an atmosphere of scepticism and distrust in Turkey, so that a well-meaning tourist might be suspected of being part of something larger and more sinister than is actually the case. Shame on them.