ISTANBUL — Who says it’s a bad thing when the sky falls on your head?
For people in Saricicek, a Turkish village of 3,000 near the city if Bingol in impoverished southeastern Anatolia, objects dropping out of the sky have been a blessing.
Life for people in Saricicek— the name means “yellow flower”—changed on Sep. 2 when a flashing light lit up the night sky, accompanied by the bang of explosions that some took for the sound of fighting between Kurdish rebels and the Turkish military.
The next day, villagers found black rocks and splinters in their gardens and in the fields. One man, Mehmet Nezir Ergun, told Turkish media he had been convinced right away that a meteorite had exploded and disintegrated over Saricicek, but that his neighbors did not believe him at first. “When we started looking for rocks, people thought we were crazy and made fun of us,” he said.
They are not laughing anymore. Ergun and others told scientists at Bingol University what had happened, and several weeks later word got to NASA, prompting the U.S. space agency to send an expert to Saricicek.
Scientists concluded that the meteorite had broken off Vesta, the brightest and second largest asteroid in the solar system. Meanwhile, space enthusiasts from Russia, Germany and the U.S. turned up in Saricicek, ready to pay tidy sums for small pieces of space rock.
Iskender Demirkol of Bingol University told the state-run Anadolu news agency that foreigners in Saricicek were paying up to $50 for a rock. Demirkol said 20 universities and institutions, NASA among them, had formed a consortium to study the Saricicek meteorite. The rock “has served us scientifically and the villagers economically,” he said.
Ergun, who runs an internet café in Saricicek, said prices had risen considerably since the first buyers from Russia descended upon the village. “The Russians said they would pay $60 per gram, but the Germans said they would pay another $10 on top.”
In Saricicek, where many people are small farmers who have to get by on a few hundred dollars a month, the hunt for meteorite debris became, for some, the ticket out of poverty. “Everyone has stopped working and is out looking for rocks,” a villager told the local news platform Bingol Online. Television footage from Saricicek showed people wandering over hills and fields, looking at the ground intently.
One man, Ismail Ergin, said he was able to pay back his debt of the equivalent of $7,700 and buy a new car after he sold a 500 gram piece of meteorite he had found. “We will keep looking,” he said. Another man, Idris Gulac, said he was waiting for a buyer for the 400-gram rock he had found. “When I have sold my rock, I can pay back my debt and open a shop.” Villagers have made a total of more than $300,000 with the sale of space rocks so far, according to news reports.
As word of the fairy-tale profit margins spread, villagers were joined by Turks from neighbouring provinces and by Syrian refugees. “If I find something, I will use the money to build a house when we return to Syria,” Saban Hemo, a refugee from Aleppo told Turkish media.
Some in Saricicek were reluctant to join the hunt. Hasan Beldek, a 30-year-old father of three, told Turkish media he was sitting at home one Sunday afternoon this month when his sister-in-law and his mother-in-law started nagging him with questions about why he was not out looking for meteorite pieces like everybody else.
“They insisted, so I finally went out,” he said. After searching for three or four hours, he found was he was looking for: “A shiny black rock bigger than a grown man’s fist was staring me in the face.” The find of the 1.5 kilogram rock made Beldek the record-holder in Saricicek so far.
Beldek has big plans for his future—he wants to buy a house and a shop—but he is determined to make the most out of his rock. He has rejected offers of around $100,000, as he is convinced that he will get higher bids for the piece.
With newspaper headlines around the country announcing it was “raining money” in Saricicek, the government warned rock hunters about possible tax payments. Finance Minister Mehmet Simsek used his Twitter account to start a poll, asking his followers whether the meteorite sale should be taxed. A clear majority of 72 percent of participants said the villagers should not be taxed. Meanwhile, tax inspectors traveled to Saricicek and were confronted by villagers who told them the space rocks had “come from Allah.”
Simsek later declared that locals in Saricicek would be exempt from sales or income tax, but rock hunters from other Turkish provinces had to pay tax because they were coming to the village for commercial purposes.