With ISIS carrying out rampages through archaeologically sensitive areas of Iraq, a pertinent question to ask now is what groups cultural heritage in the Middle East is being preserved, and whose is being destroyed.
Over the past couple of months shocking reports have surfaced concerning mass destruction of Iraqs cultural heritage at two locationsthe museum in Mosul and the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud, located in northern Iraq. Both incidents were perpetrated by the so-called Islamic State. The one at the Mosul museum was recorded on video.
But destruction with sledge hammers, bonfires, and heavy equipment isnt the only threat to priceless objects thousands of years old. Artifacts are also being illegally excavated and pilfered on a massive scale. An enormous black market in stolen antiquities in fact has arisen in the last four years since the outbreak of the conflict in Syria, and the general rule of thumb seems to be if its small enough to be carted off, take it and sell it on the black market; if its too large to move, then smash it to pieces. This is what weve seen repeatedly in Syria and Iraq since ISIS took over large swaths of both countries.
By the way, the trade in looted antiquities seems to be quite lucrative, with some of these items fetching in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, while the total black market trade has been estimated at roughly $7 billion per year.
This is not just Iraqs cultural heritage that is at stake, of course; its all of humanitys. If we think of human history collectively as a lepidopteron, drifting lazily from the flower of the Neolithic past, into the age of proto-writing, and finally early recorded history, then Syria, Iraq and the Fertile Crescent stand out perhaps unique among regions of the earth. This is where human civilization got started, and the looting and destruction of these antiquities is a loss to all of us.
Interestingly, an exhibition entitled By the Rivers of Babylon has now opened at a museum in Israel, and among its exhibits are a large number of ancient Babylonian cuneiform tablets110 of them altogether. These tablets belong to a London-based Israeli collector by the name of David Sofer, but a controversy has sprung up, since there seems to be some question about the provenance, or origin, of the artifacts.
The tablets are said to be some 2,500 years old and reportedly shed light on the biblical Israelites during their exile in Babylon (in what is, of course, today Iraq). Sofer claims he purchased the tablets in the 1990s from a person who supposedly obtained them through public auction some 20 years previous. However, he reportedly has refused to name the person he bought them from.
The rise of ISIS has made it extremely perilous for archaeologists to continue to work in Iraq and Syria, and most expeditions have in fact come to a halt. But in Israel these days things are a bit different.
Unhindered by ISIS marauders, the Israeli Antiquities Authority has undertaken archaeological excavations in numerous areas of the country, including one begun last year in the occupied West Bank, where the objective is to recover artifacts dating back to the King David era. Finds of this nature would, by some views at any rate, help validate Israels 3000-year-old land claim, as its been called, and thus you wont be surprised to learn that this isnt the only such archaeological dig going onnot by a long shot.
In fact, you can go to the website of the Israeli Antiquities Authority, where no less than 19 separate excavations are listed as currently active for the year 2015.
So what to make of it all? Thats a good question. All I can really say is that it seems enormous efforts are being expended to recover and safeguard Jewish cultural heritagethis, ironically, as everyone elses cultural heritage in the Middle East is being looted and destroyed.
Controversy has surrounded the exhibition however, as the tablets are the product of a modern, shadowy process. The recently chaotic climate in Iraq and Syria has led to the rampant theft of the areas archaeological heritage. Widespread looting has led to the international antiquities markets being stocked with cuneiform tablets.
Many museums have promised not to exhibit artefacts that may have been looted, as part of an effort to discourage the illicit trade in antiquities. Cuneiform inscriptions, however, are a notable exception to this. Since 2004, cuneiform artefacts with no record of where or how they were unearthed have been allowed to be transported, in order to be examined by scholars. This is done on the condition that Iraqi authorities give their consent, and that the tablets are eventually returned to Iraq.
Some argue that these precious objects, some of which are the earliest examples of writing in the world, could be forever lost if they are not looked after by conservators.
We are not interested in anything that is illegally acquired or sneaked out, said Amanda Weiss, director of the Bible Lands Museum Jerusalem. But it is the role of a museum to protect these pieces, she added. Its what we are here for.
It has been claimed that the Islamic State extremist group and other militants are part-funding their campaigns through the illegal trafficking of historic artefacts. Trafficking and looting have, however, been going on for a long time. Archaeologists were first alerted to the problem during the first Gulf War, when Western antiquities markets were flooded with cuneiform artefacts.
Back in May of 2003, after the fall of Baghdad and the looting of Iraqs national museum, a large trove of Jewish communal documents, Torah fragments as well as public records dating back several centuries, were discovered in a flooded basement and taken to the United States for restoration and safeguarding. Iraqis were given assurances that the collection would be returned to them at a later date.
Eventually the summer of 2014 was set as the target date for when the restored documents would be handed back over, but this got sidetracked in late 2013 when a campaign was launched to have the entire collection remain in the US or possibly transferred to Israel.
It is, after all, Jewish heritage, so the argument went, and since there arent many Jews left in Iraq today, why on earth should the collection go back there?
Initially the position of US officials was that America would honor its commitment and return the collection to Iraq. But then in the summer of 2014, ISIS took over large parts of the country, including the city of Mosul, and in September it was announced that highlights of the archive, rather than going back to Iraq, would be taken upon a tour of US cities.
The plot thickened further in January of 2015 when it was reported that one of the artifacts, a 200-year-old Torah scroll, had not actually been taken to the US at all, but rather instead had been deposited at the Israeli Embassy in Jordanand from there it made its way into Israel.
Reportedly the scroll is now housed in a synagogue attached to the Israeli Foreign Ministry, and a ceremonial Torah inauguration is said to have been held on January 22.
By all accounts the text of the scroll had been copied onto a deer skin parchment using concentrated pomegranate juice as ink. Supposedly the use of deer skin was unusual, as most of the Torah scrolls at the time in question were comprised of cow parchment.
In any event, the disposition of the scroll, and its ending up in Israel, have prompted accusations of collaboration on the theft of Iraqi heritage by the US and Israel.
Meanwhile, the rest of the Iraqi Jewish archive purportedly remains in safe hands in the US.
Alas, the same cannot be said of Iraqs, or humanitys, non-Jewish heritage, as it were, the destruction of which continues at an alarming pace. The attacks upon the Mosul Museum and the ancient city of Nimrud, as well as the earlier ransacking and burning of documents at the Mosul librarythese and other incidents like them exact a dreadful toll. They are, in essence, taking us back to the dark ages, as an Iraqi official recently described it.
And it doesnt seem to be letting up.
By arrangement with the Global Research
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