Christina Luke. A Pearl in Peril: Heritage and Diplomacy in Turkey. 288 pp., illus., tables, notes, bibl., index. New York: Oxford University Press, 2019.
Christina Luke’s A Pearl in Peril is a wide-ranging study of development, international diplomacy, heritage, and extraction in the twentieth and the twenty-first centuries that provides a substantive analysis of the politics of the past in western Turkey. Luke takes as her focus the once-Ottoman city of Smyrna, now-Turkish city of Izmir (sometimes known as “the pearl of the Mediterranean”) and its hinterlands, including the archaeological site of Sardis. Luke shows how this resource-rich region, whether archaeologically or in terms of its mineral and agricultural wealth, sat at the center of diplomatic and extractive intrigue throughout the previous century. In drawing these long-term connections, Luke highlights the consequences of this entanglement in constituting contemporary forms of heritage and local reactions to it. In addition to historians and anthropologists of heritage and the politics of the past, Luke’s volume will find an appreciative readership across a variety of fields, including scholars of international relations and development aid. The book at times can feel slightly unbalanced, however, and I suspect that each of these readerships might well wish that the distribution of themes throughout the volume differed slightly.
Luke tackles her topic in a broadly, but not quite, chronological frame. The book’s introduction sets out the volume’s methodological basis, highlighting a dual approach couched between the anthropology of development and “a critical analysis […] of unheard voices, and hidden histories” (10). It also usefully—and justifiably—points out that many studies of (world) heritage seem to be “floating in time” (9). Luke then turns in her first chapter to contemporary western Turkey, demonstrating how global business, diplomacy, and archaeology have come together in ways that have both empowered local communities and destroyed elements of historic landscapes. Chapter Two historicizes this situation, revealing how in order to ensure influence over the control of antiquities in the country, American archaeologists involved with the pre-First World War excavations at the archaeological site of Sardis (which became the site of the Greek-Turkish frontier after the Greek occupation of Smyrna in 1919) sought to influence the results of the 1919 Paris Peace Conference and the contents of the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne (which set the new state of Turkey’s borders).
Changing track slightly, Chapter Three turns to the arrival of water development projects in the Gediz Valley of western Turkey, and highlights in particular the Aegean Tennessee Valley Authority’s attempts to counter the perceived “Soviet threat” in Turkey (82). Chapter Four tackles the way in which heritage projects became, for a limited period of time, part of these broader US Cold War initiatives. In this chapter, Luke focuses on the implementation of US Public Law 480 funding by American archaeologists. PL 480 funds derived from soft currency gathered during the Cold War-era Food for Peace program. Money collected as part of the sale of American food imports was subsequently used to fund American archaeological projects and related training initiatives. However, the effort and expense of using this money to finance preservation and other work during UNESCO’s International Campaign to Save the Monuments of Nubia in the 1960s, most notably at the temples of Abu Simbel in Egypt, led the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee to cut the use of this cash source, including at Sardis. Chapter Five returns to the contemporary moment, concentrating on how these various interests discussed throughout the book contributed to the placing of “The Ancient City of Sardis” and “The Lydian Tumuli of Bin Tepe” on Turkey’s 2013 UNESCO Tentative List for world heritage sites.
There is a lot to like about A Pearl in Peril. The volume’s explanations of the long-running connections and ruptures between American diplomacy and archaeological work are immensely valuable, not least because Luke details how those involved attempts to nurture and exploit these relationships. The book’s blurring of history and anthropology is also welcome, lending Luke the ability to set current events in the Izmir region—and her discussions of the views of local informants—within the sort of deep historical background that all too often seems to be missing from scholarship on heritage in particular, as she so astutely points out. Luke shows mastery of a huge range of sources and perspectives, a point which is greatly to the book’s credit.
As much as it is a strength, however, the book’s wide-ranging nature and longue durée timescale can also work against it. Although they follow a clear narrative structure, I found that the chapters sometimes felt unbalanced in their attention to detail. Chapters Two and Four, for example, seem bogged down in excessive detail regarding who, exactly, first realized that Public Law 480 funds could be used for archaeological research (126). Despite the ways in which that act made clear the continued connection between influential archaeologists and American officials since Versailles, it is not clear that anyone reading this book for its contributions on the history of water diplomacy will care about this sort of minutia. This is a detailed book, which sometimes risks obscuring its overall message. Furthermore, its fine-grained exposure of specific historical episodes jars with the broader brush picture it paints of the contemporary era.
I feel compelled to make one last point, not only about this book, but also many other recently published volumes. Copy-editing, it seems, is becoming a dying art form. Typos litter this and other monographs, as do other proof-reading errors (some worse than others). As a reader, this is a frustrating experience, and speaks poorly of the effort and resources devoted by presses to books that represent years of work for the authors involved. As we all know, academic publishing is, in some instances, driven by profit margins. These days, however, there is often little margin in the profit involved. Oxford University Press’s profit in 2018-19 was £90.2 million after tax. As an organization ostensibly devoted to “excellence in research, scholarship, and education by publishing worldwide,” and as the largest university press in the world, it can—and should—do better.