With ISIS carrying out rampages through archaeologically sensitive areas of Iraq, a pertinent question to ask now is what group’s cultural heritage in the Middle East is being preserved, and whose is being destroyed.
Over the past couple of weeks shocking reports have surfaced concerning mass destruction of Iraq’s cultural heritage at two locations–the 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 isn’t 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 it’s small enough to be carted off, take it and sell it on the black market; if it’s too large to move, then smash it to pieces. This is what we’ve 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 Iraq’s cultural heritage that is at stake, of course; it’s all of humanity’s. 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 tablets–110 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 Israel’s “3000-year-old land claim,” as it’s been called, and thus you won’t be surprised to learn that this isn’t the only such archaeological dig going on–not 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? That’s a good question. All I can really say is that it seems enormous efforts are being expended to recover and safeguard Jewish cultural heritage–this, ironically, as everyone else’s cultural heritage in the Middle East is being looted and destroyed.
At any rate, here is an article recently published about the museum exhibition in Israel featuring the artifacts in Sofer’s possession.
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