BMCR 2021.08.21

Plundered empire: acquiring antiquities from Ottoman lands

, Plundered empire: acquiring antiquities from Ottoman lands. Heritage and identity, 6. Leiden: Brill, 2019. Pp. 664. ISBN 9789004405462 €209,00.


Plundered empire explores the impact of Western travelers who visited the lands of the Ottoman Empire between the conquest of Constantinople in 1453 and the end of the First World War, in search of ancient sites, monuments, and antiquities to excavate, acquire, and ship home. It focuses on the activities of travelers and collectors in the field up until the moment antiquities left the territories of the Empire on their way to the West, leading to the development of the major museums of Europe and the US.

The book expands on and, to an extent, overlaps with the author’s previous work, in particular his 2012 book, Constantinople to Córdoba: Dismantling Ancient Architecture in the East, North Africa and Islamic Spain, in terms of content, source material, and protagonists, relying exclusively on Western travelers’ accounts to describe the destruction, looting, and recycling of Greek and Roman monuments and antiquities from the Middle Ages through the end of the 19th century around the Eastern Mediterranean basin.

Plundered empire comes at an important juncture when discussions of colonialism, illegal export of antiquities by Western powers, repatriation, ethics of collecting, and decolonizing museum collections take center stage not only in academia, across the fields of archaeology, museum studies, and heritage studies, but also in popular media. The book is a valuable tool for both scholars and researchers working on the many issues it deals with, and for anyone who cares about the reckless and incessant plunder of the cultural heritage of the Middle East and North Africa.

The title of this extensive volume gives the impression that it covers all major ancient civilizations that previously inhabited the territories of the Ottoman empire, and were not only the object of the West’s fascination but also the target of its incessant looting. Yet readers will be disappointed if they expect to learn about the plunder of Mesopotamia by Western diplomats and scholars looking for tangible remains of the stories in the Old Testament, or how the great Ishtar Gate or the stone reliefs adorning Assyrian palaces were cut up and shipped to Berlin and London. Instead the author takes the word antiquity to mean only the classical periods of Greek and Roman civilization. In comparison to the 138 pages devoted to the activities of Western travelers in Athens and on the Greek islands, Syria and Mesopotamia receive a mere 23 pages, while Egypt and North Africa take up 48 pages, and the lands that today constitute the modern republic of Turkey are covered in 49 pages. Greenhalgh explains this choice through the interest shown by Westerners, highlighting that “the majority of travelers were educated to some level in the classics and ancient history,” (p. xiv) (reducing ancient history to Greece and Rome).

The book is a monumental scholarly work of 660 pages, including an extensive and wide-ranging bibliography, and 190 illustrations. The book has both footnotes and endnotes; endnotes are presented in an additional 654-page document, available for download online.

Plundered empire is meticulously researched and deploys an exceptional number and variety of primary sources in the form of hundreds of accounts of European and American travelers, scholars, and collectors who visited the Ottoman Empire. These accounts by travelers from different walks of life with different interests (diplomats, scholars, clerics, doctors, pilgrims, soldiers, engineers, explorers, archaeologists) reflect the intellectual and ideological backgrounds and experiences of their authors, and provide a window into the goals and motivations that drove them to visit, document, and eventually loot the classical sites and monuments in the region. This impressive range of primary sources is what makes Plundered empire a reference book for anyone interested in the West’s ever-growing interest in the history and heritage of the Middle East and North Africa.[1] But anyone who wants to understand looting across the Ottoman Empire, the motivations of the travelers, or the countries that sponsored them would need to read the entire book. The lengthy and repetitive quotes, which often take up an entire page with multiple footnotes and endnotes, tend to be overwhelming and distracting without adding to the argument.

The volume is divided into three parts, describing the planning, excavating, acquisition, and transporting of classical antiquities out of Ottoman lands, while analyzing the “changing relationships between Westerners and Ottomans concerning antiquities” (p. xi). The first part (pp. 3-140 “Planning Shopping Lists, Ambassadors and Consuls, Sites and Scholars”) in a dense introductory chapter starts with a brief history of the Ottoman Empire and its interactions with Europe. It covers a wide range of topics: the author’s decision to describe the activities of Western travelers as “plunder”; the travelers’ reliance on ancient and contemporary sources; guidebooks, and the help of diplomats, merchants, and military officials to move across the Ottoman lands; the birth of archaeology as a discipline; and the development of museum collections in the West. These topics, each of which could have filled a separate article or book, are clearly crucial but trying to squeeze them into bite-sized sections, jumping from one to another with no clear connections in between, requires a lot of patience and perseverance from the reader to get to the main body of the text. Passages packed with anecdotes and tangents under section titles that sometimes don’t match their content, continue to interrupt the main argument throughout the book, which would have benefited from a more cohesive organization. Section titles do not always match their contents (e.g., Chapter 4.10, which is on terracotta statuettes, not pottery as the title states).

The third and final part (pp. 501-562) covers the process of transporting antiquities back to Europe and the US, where museums competed over the spoils. The last section also delves into the not-always-successful efforts of the Ottomans and Greeks to stop the plunder of their lands, issuing laws that prohibited the removal of antiquities, and building their own museums to display antiquities where they were found.

The 6-page conclusion wraps up a 550-page account of the West’s engagement with the monuments and peoples of the lands ruled by the Ottoman Empire over a period of 450 years. It reinforces the impression that Plundered empire is more of a catalog than a critical engagement with the themes outlined above. That said, the author makes a crucial point by reminding us that the insatiable Western demand and greed which motivated the spree of looting, destruction, and removal of antiquities from the eastern Mediterranean, Middle East and North Africa was not limited to the past and continues to plague those regions today. We see it reflected in the practices of antiquities dealers, private collectors, and museums alike, where provenance, documentation, legality, and due diligence have yet to become priorities for many. The author illustrates this clearly with the looting of Iraq’s museums, libraries and archaeological sites following the invasion of the country in 2003, but neglects to mention Syria, where the civil war that had been raging for 8 years by the time this book went to press has caused the destruction and looting of the country’s cultural heritage to an unprecedented level.

Plundered empire is an impressive product of extensive and meticulous archival research, contributing to our understanding of the West’s attitudes towards the Ottoman Empire, its peoples and heritage. Nonetheless, commentary echoing the Orientalist views of Western scholars and travelers permeates the book. This is surprising, considering the author’s strong critique of the colonialist European attitude in various parts of his work. Greenhalgh makes his stance very clear in the introduction and conclusion, where he questions the Western claim to explore and protect the region’s past through collaboration and exchange, draws attention to the problematic collecting practices of museums and the role of looting today, encouraging these institutions to take a hard look at their histories and collection ethics, echoing the expanding body of work on decolonizing museums. Nevertheless, at times he cannot help but fall into the classic Orientalist discourses of his sources, straying far from the sensibilities, discussions, and practices of Middle East studies, history, archaeology, and cultural heritage studies. There are too many instances to quote individually, but these should suffice: Western travelers are “plagued by poor roads and transportation, and the not-always-favorable attitude of locals toward foreigners” when they look for sites to excavate and loot (p. 11); ancient sites and monuments suffer from “the increasing thirst for building materials on the part of the expanding populations” (p. xiii) and excavation work being “left to locals” (pp. 301-302); leaving native overseers in charge “is practically an invitation to theft” (p. 339); all locals, except for Greeks, Jews, and Arabs, are Turks, and it is the Turks at Baalbek (p. 220), at Bethlehem (p. 223), in Syria (p. 333), and Tunisia (p. 387) who dismantle, destroy, mutilate and re-use ancient remains; the Europeans’ transporting of colossal antiquities that they looted is an “achievement” (p. 516) comparable to the Egyptians and Romans erecting these monuments in antiquity (p. 512). Another major issue is that Greenhalgh returns again and again to the argument that “the Empire was plundered by its inhabitants long before the West took an interest” (p. XII), highlighting the millennia-old practice of locals sourcing building materials from ancient sites as one of the main causes for the destruction of sites and monuments across the region—a topic with which he has dealt extensively in his previous work. But it is neither a fair assessment nor a good comparison, to liken locals looking for easily accessible building materials on their own lands to Westerners intentionally and greedily looting those same lands for objects they coveted.

The book is riddled with an embarrassing number of typos, syntactically incomplete sentences, and inconsistent spellings of place names, sometimes even on two consecutive pages.[2] Another major issue is the author’s insistence on using antiquated transcriptions of certain place names, which makes it difficult, if not impossible, to locate these places on a map, unless one is intimately familiar with the geography of the lands in question.[3] The historic maps of Anatolia and North Africa at the beginning of the volume, and the 190 illustrations of maps, monuments, and antiquities at the end are not connected with the text in any meaningful way.

Despite its flaws, Plundered empire is a useful contribution to current discussions on cultural heritage and an important resource for anyone interested in understanding how classical sites and monuments in the lands of the Ottoman Empire were plundered and displayed in museums for the enjoyment of Western elites. Researchers interested in particular regions of the Empire will also find the extensive travelers accounts and references to other primary documentation useful, as long as they remember to approach the book with a very critical eye.


[1] Dividing the bibliography into primary and secondary sources makes it somewhat difficult to follow footnotes.

[2] Just to quote a few examples, the Prince of Canino on p. 129 becomes Princo of Canino on the next page; the village of Kastri in Greece (p. 155) is spelled Castri on p. 159; while on p. 277 the ancient and modern town names of Adrianople/Edirne are presented together, Nicomedia on the previous page (p. 276) and Antioch on p. 277 are missing their modern names İznik and Antakya; but Pergamum/Bergama on p. 286 and Bodrum/Halicarnassus on p. 294 are mentioned with both classical and modern names; Prevesa on p. 477 is Prevyza on the next page. While reading about the French attempts to ship Pompey’s Pillar from Alexandria to Paris, one assumes from context that the sea-captain at Marseille quoted an estimate for the “transportation,” not “translation,” of the pillar.

[3] For example, on p. 283, the modern town name is spelled both as Aidin and Aydın in the same paragraph=. On p. 274 Yeni Cami in Istanbul is spelled Djami; throughout Chapter 9, Ayasuluk is Ayasoluk; Kourchounlou (p. 301) is modern Kurşunlu, while Sighajik (p. 313) is modern Sığacık.