VT | 19 March 2015
Wanton Destruction and Questionable Provenance
It seems that Israelis are rather remarkably blessed with good fortune these days.
Within a month of each other, two amazing archaeological discoveries have been uncovered in the Jewish state–not by means of an archaeological dig or excavation, but simply happened upon by chance, we are told.
Back in February, approximately 2,000 gold coins were reportedly found by “amateur scuba divers” lying upon the ocean floor, some twelve meters deep, in the harbor of what was once the ancient port of Caesarea.
Then just earlier this month it was announced that a cache of jewelry and ancient silver and bronze coins were discovered in a cave in northern Israel by three members of a spelunking club. The precise location of the cave has not been disclosed, but the discovery reportedly includes rings, bracelets, earrings, and coins minted during the reign of Alexander the Great. One side of the coins features an image of Alexander, while the other portrays an image of Zeus sitting on a throne with arm raised. (H/T Jake Gittes)
In an article posted last week I discussed an exhibition of Iraqi cuneiform tablets at Israel’s Bible Lands Museum along with questions that have been raised about the provenance of the artifacts on display. The owner of the 2500-year-old tablets is an Israeli collector by the name of David Sofer, who says he purchased them in the 1990s but has reportedly refused to name the person from whom he bought them.
And as I noted, the exhibition comes at a time when archaeological sites in Iraq and Syria are being raped and pillaged, while a $7 billion black market in stolen artifacts has taken root. What I wrote, in part, was:
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 library–these 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.
The coins from the find attributed to the divers in Caesarea are believed to be around a thousand years old and apparently are of pure gold. The discovery is described as “so valuable that it’s priceless,” and some have speculated on its possibly being the result of a ship wreck.
“The coins are in an excellent state of preservation, and despite the fact they were at the bottom of the sea for about a thousand years, they did not require any cleaning or conservation intervention,” said Robert Cole, of the Israel Antiquities Authority.
Israel’s shoreline is not exactly virgin territory. How did the coins manage to sit there all this time, a thousand years, in water only 12 meters deep, and not get noticed until now? The Israelis actually have an answer for that. The coins, they say, were most likely hidden beneath the sand until a winter storm shifted the seabed.
Be that as it may, the discovery is indeed a rather stunning one, and has turned heads and captured the attention of the media. Here is a bit from National Geographic’s report:
“We were told [that the divers] had found about 30 or 40 coins,” says Jakob (Koby) Sharvit, director of the Marine Archaeology Unit. “Usually that means you’ve found a hoard. So we went back and performed a small excavation. After two hours, we had found something like one thousand coins.
“We were shocked,” he recalls. “We were so incredibly excited, but when you’re underwater, you can’t talk to each other. It was only when we surfaced and pulled out our regulators that we could scream with happiness.”
That was just for starters, though. On a second trip back to the underwater site, they purportedly found another thousand coins.
Of various sizes and denominations, the coins date to the Fatmid caliphate, a Shia caliphate which arose in the late ninth/early tenth century and which lasted for a couple of centuries until it was absorbed into the Ayyubid dynasty of Saladin. A bit more from National Geographic:
At its height in the mid-tenth to mid-eleventh centuries A.D., Fatimid rule stretched across North Africa and Sicily to the Levant, with trade ties that extended all the way to China. From its capital in Cairo, the caliphate controlled access to gold from sources in West Africa to the Mediterranean, and the currency crafted from the precious metal conveyed the Fatimids’ formidable power and wealth.
It may well be that the coins were discovered just as the Israelis say. Likewise the items found earlier this month in the cave. It is entirely possible, as the report on the latter discovery has it, that three spelunkers simply “wriggled through a narrow passage” at the entrance to the stalactite cave and then happened upon the stash of jewelry and coins.
Certainly there have indeed been instances of archaeological discoveries made by average people who just stumbled upon them. There is the case of the Lascaux Cave in France, with its Paleolithic paintings of animals on the cave walls–discovered in 1940 by four teenagers and a dog. (H/T JS).
But one thing that needs to be pointed out is that there is no independent verification of the provenance of either of the two recent discoveries in Israel. All we seem to have to go on is the word of the Israelis themselves. A couple of other things bear mentioning as well:
- that in ISIS-controlled areas of Syria and Iraq, illegal excavations of archaeological sites are occurring on a massive scale, with antiquities thieves sometimes even employing heavy equipment and machinery;
- that items looted from these sites are ending up in London and other Western cities;
If a portion of these looted items are finding their way into London, where else do you suppose they might be ending up?
Equally worth considering in all this are what appear to be ties or links between Israel and terrorist forces operating in Syria. Here is what I wrote on that last week:
There has of course been abundant evidence of Israeli support for terrorist rebels in Syria (see here, here, here, here, here, here, and here, for instance) and it has been noted that neither ISIS nor Al-Nusra have launched attacks against Israel, even though the latter, in particular, seems to be active in the Golan Heights very close to Israel’s border.
And not only do Israel and Al-Nusra not attack each other, but Israel has even transported wounded terrorists across the border for medical treatment in Israel.
Most people seem to be of the opinion that the Jewish state’s motivation in all this is its desire for regime change in Syria, but are there perhaps are a few lesser-discussed fringe benefits as well?
Interviewed in the video below is the highly respected Dr. Maamoun Abdulkarim, head of Syria’s Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM), who discusses the trafficking in stolen artifacts.
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Dr. Abdulkarim is author of the book Archeological Heritage in Syria During the Crisis 2011-2013. The book documents destruction to Syrian archaeological sites in the two-year period mentioned, and in one section, entitled “Illegal Excavation,” the author gives a specific, site-by-site rundown of sites and tells where looting has occurred. Here is a quote from that section:
The danger threatening archaeological sites in Syria is increasing because of the absence of the government institutions concerned and the archaeological authorities in certain areas. Several archaeological sites have been seriously damaged by illegal excavations, some of which were carried out by armed gangs, particularly in areas near borders or where violent conflicts have occurred.
- The sites of Deir ez-Zor, Mari, Dura Europos, Halbia, Buseira, Tell Sheikh Hamad and Tell es-Sin have all been damaged by thieves who excavate for objects which are sold to local and foreign dealers.
- Many violations that have damaged the archaeological levels at Tell al-Bay’ah and other neighboring tell sites at Raqqa have been recorded.
- The site of Ebla has been subject to illegal excavation for some time, causing the destruction of some parts of the site. Efforts made by members of the local community have succeeded in controlling the situation temporarily, but it has been observed that illegal excavation has taken place during the past month.
- Some sites in the Idlib region, within the area of the Dead Cities, which are inscribed on the World Heritage List (Gebel al-Aala, Gebel al-Woastani and Gebel Barisha) have been subject to destruction and serious damage, in particular some of the unique churches. Information has been received that illegal excavations are being carried out at these churches by gangs of thieves coming from Turkey. Kafr Oqab, according to our information, is the most damaged site in the region.
- The site of Apamea is considered to be one of the sites most affected as a result of the ongoing pillage at the site, which has occurred in the eastern, northeastern and western sectors of the city. A comparison between two photos taken by satellite, the first taken before the beginning of the crisis in Syria and the second on April 4, 2012, shows the extent of looting and destruction at the site of Apamea due to illegal excavation.
- Illegal excavation has become very common in the city of Daraa with hundreds of hired men and armed antiquities thieves taking part in excavations inside the al-Omari Mosque and at the archaeological sites along Wadi al-Yarmouk and at Tell al-Ash’ari, which will cause irreparable damage if continued.
- Large areas of Tell Qaramel near Aleppo were destroyed by means of heavy machinery; other sites in this region are permanently damaged.
Reports from the antiquities departments of some governorates warn against the expansion of the destruction zone engineered by organized armed gangs at the sites mentioned above, especially during the past three months. This destruction affects sites that are highly significant in the history of Syria, and demonstrates that tragically, some components of Syria’s archaeological heritage are lost forever.
Keep in mind that the thefts and damage itemized by Dr. Abdulkarim above are only those which occurred through 2013.
In addition to illegal excavations at archaeological sites, his book also discusses thefts from museums, including a gilt bronze statue of the Aramaean period taken from the Hama Museum; a stone marble piece from the Apamea Museum; 17 pieces of pottery and some clay dolls from the exhibition hall of the Jaabar Castle; as well as historical pieces from Aleppo’s Museum of Folklore. But of all the regions in Syria where museums have been ransacked, it is perhaps the northeast governorate of Raqqa, now under control of ISIS, that has been hit the hardest in this regard:
Due to the events that occurred in the city of Raqqa and the absence of governmental and cultural institutions, robbers seized six boxes stored in the Raqqa Museum’s warehouse which contained archaeological objects. Previously, an armed group moved three boxes containing artifacts which belong to the National Museum to an unknown location under the pretext of protecting them. Efforts made by the officials of the department have not so far been successful in implementing the return of these boxes.
In some cases looted museum pieces have been recovered, though in others, as indicated, the stolen artifacts remain missing.
A visit to the DGAM website provides us with additional information. One of the more important archaeological sites in Syria is Dura Europos, a former Roman colony located in the eastern part of the country, less than 50 miles from the Iraqi border. The city was founded in 303 BC by the Seleucids, the successors to Alexander the Great, and during the Roman period it became a fairly cosmopolitan city, inhabited by Pagans, Christians, and Jews alike. In December of 2014 DGAM posted “before” and “after” photos showing illegal excavations at the site.
Other photos posted by DGAM, also in December of 2014, document illegal excavations–said to be taking place on a “massive scale”–at Rahbaa Castle, in Mayadin, a short distance to the northwest from Dura Europos. Below are a couple of the photos. You can see more here.
People all over the world have expressed outrage at the destruction of antiquities in the Middle East, particularly over recent depredations in Iraq, where one incident, the destruction of artifacts at the Mosul Museum, was videotaped and posted online.
“We cannot remain silent,” said UNESCO Director Irina Bokova following destruction at a second Iraqi site, the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud. “The deliberate destruction of cultural heritage constitutes a war crime. I call on all political and religious leaders in the region to stand up and remind everyone that there is absolutely no political or religious justification for the destruction of humanity’s cultural heritage.”
But none of this seems to have dampened the jubilation felt in Israel over the discovery of the gold coins. Kobi Sharvit, head of the Israel Antiquities Authorities’ Marine Archaeology Unit, heaped praise upon the scuba divers.
“These divers are model citizens. They discovered the gold and have a heart of gold that loves the country and its history,” he said.
Much obviously has been gained in Israel. A rundown on what’s been lost recently in Iraq is given in a recent article by Felicity Arbuthnot. With the outrages at Mosul, Nimrud, and Hatra still fresh in people’s minds, here in part is what Arbuthnot wrote:
On Friday, 6th March, the Muslim Sabbath, the ancient city of Nimrud was bulldozed by self declared “Islamic State” primitives destroying what became the capital of the Neo-Assyrian empire, dating back to the 13th century BC. The site also contained the remains of the palace of Ashurnasirpal, King of Assyria (883-859 BC) who made Nimrud his capital.
A local source told Reuters valuables were looted then the city razed to the ground. One entrance to this haunting place was guarded until last week by human headed bulls and lions with hawk’s wings. These guardians prevailed through the region’s turmoils for nearly three thousand years, to be destroyed with all they watched over by terrorists spawned by Bush and Blair’s criminal invasion.
In the south western palace is the temple of Nabu, God of wisdom, the arts and sciences, believed son of the Babylonian God, Marduk. Construction was probably between 810-782 BC.
The attack upon Nimrud was followed, two days later, with a fresh outrage as ISIS began blowing up buildings in Hatra, a 22-century-old archaeological site located 68 miles southwest of Mosul. Says Arbuthnot:
A 1982 Iraqi Ministry of Tourism guide describes in Hatra: “ … a frieze with sculptures which seem to tell a religious story enacted by Gods and musicians – the most beautiful work of art so far discovered” in this vast, ethereal city of creamy stone which shimmers golden under the sun, glowing amber under dawn’s rays and the setting sun.
The columns, temples, statues communicate not alone from the temples of the Gods, but surely from the architecture of the Gods, rendering a writer searching for words seemingly not yet devised.
There is the Temple of the goddess Shahiro (“the morning star”.) An area is: ”paved with veined marble, with walls decorated with geometrical designs and eagles – eagles being the main element in the Hatra religion. Over a decorative frieze, Arabic writing dates from the second half of the Abbasid era” (750-1258 AD.) The Abbasid Caliphate oversaw the “golden age of Islamic civilization.”
Hatra abounds with temples to creation. They were dedicated to the Sun God, to Venus (the morning star) “called variously Allatu, Atra’ta and Marthin – our lady.” The God Nergoul, also with a dedicated temple, symbolized the planet Mars. The revered, great, soaring eagle had his temple, where his statues looked down from on high.
The inscriptions are predominantly in ancient Aramaic, some reading: “Kings and princes of Hatra are the victorious kings of the Arabs.” They are surely weeping.
For those who know these marvels, hearts will never mend. Tears will never dry.
While evidence of Israel’s support for terrorist rebels seems pretty substantial, it’s unclear to what extent Israelis can be held responsible for the wanton destruction occurring at archaeological sites and museums. I suppose it largely depends on whether you think the antiquities are being destroyed for religious reasons or political ones.
What is known, however, is that Israelis have carried out deliberate destruction of Palestinian cultural records. You can go here, here, here, here, here, and here, to read about Israeli attacks upon the Sakakini Cultural Center in Ramallah and the Palestinian Ministry of Culture in El Bireh, both in the West Bank, and the Orient House in East Jerusalem. In all three places, records as well as cultural items such as works of art were destroyed. Here is what the Israeli journalist Amira Hass wrote about the destruction at the Ministry of Culture, which took place in April of 2002:
In other offices, all the high-tech and electronic equipment had been wrecked or had vanished – computers, photocopiers, cameras, scanners, hard disks, editing equipment worth thousands of dollars, television sets. The broadcast antenna on top of the building was destroyed.
Telephone sets vanished. A collection of Palestinian art objects (mostly hand embroideries) disappeared. Perhaps it was buried under the piles of documents and furniture, perhaps it had been spirited away. Furniture was dragged from place to place, broken by soldiers, piled up. Gas stoves for heating were overturned and thrown on heaps of scattered papers, discarded books, broken diskettes and discs and smashed windowpanes.
In the department for the encouragement of children’s art, the soldiers had dirtied all the walls with gouache paints they found there and destroyed the children’s paintings that hung there.
In every room of the various departments – literature, film, culture for children and youth books, discs, pamphlets and documents were piled up, soiled with urine and excrement.
There are two toilets on every floor, but the soldiers urinated and defecated everywhere else in the building, in several rooms of which they had lived for about a month. They did their business on the floors, in emptied flowerpots, even in drawers they had pulled out of desks.
They defecated into plastic bags, and these were scattered in several places. Some of them had burst. Someone even managed to defecate into a photocopier.
The soldiers urinated into empty mineral water bottles. These were scattered by the dozen in all the rooms of the building, in cardboard boxes, among the piles of rubbish and rubble, on desks, under desks, next to the furniture the solders had smashed, among the children’s books that had been thrown down.
Some of the bottles had opened and the yellow liquid had spilled and left its stain. It was especially difficult to enter two floors of the building because of the pungent stench of feces and urine. Soiled toilet paper was also scattered everywhere.
In some of the rooms, not far from the heaps of feces and the toilet paper, remains of rotting food were scattered. In one corner, in the room in which someone had defecated into a drawer, full cartons of fruits and vegetables had been left behind. The toilets were left overflowing with bottles filled with urine, feces and toilet paper.
In terms of its wantonness, the wave of vandalism and destruction being carried out now by ISIS in Iraq and Syria seems similar to a degree to that described in the quoted section above, although perhaps without the defecation.
And in addition, according to a report here, Israelis also attacked the Museum of Solidarity with Palestine in Beirut in 1982–while other artists in Lebanon suffered more recent losses of their works–in the war of 2006.
So it seems that an Israeli proclivity to eradicate and/or damage the cultural archives of other people has, at least in the past, manifested itself. And of course if we go by the Oded Yinon plan, the destabilization and splintering of other countries in the Middle East has been an Israeli policy since at least the 1980s.
Many may remember that the destruction of cultural heritage sites in Iraq today has its historical precedent in the looting of the Baghdad Museum in 2003, and it behooves us to recall that twelve years ago US forces stood idly by as that looting took place. Likewise America doesn’t seem to be exerting a great deal of effort to stop the destruction by ISIS going on currently. Preserving archaeological artifacts was very much a low priority for Donald Rumsfeld in 2003–just as it seems to be a low priority for Gen. Martin Dempsey today–and in fact, a comparison of quotes from the two men is instructive.
“Stuff happens! And it’s untidy, and freedom’s untidy,” said Rumsfeld.
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Like Rumsfeld, Dempsey doesn’t seem to place much value on the preservation of antiquities, recently commenting that he would “consider” making an effort in that regard, but couldn’t promise anything:
The Islamic State’s destruction of cultural antiquities in Iraq has stepped up a notch recently, with members of the extremist group both bulldozing the 3,000-year-old Nimrud archaeological site near Mosul and ransackingthe similarly ancient ruins of Hatra in the past few days.
Now, the United States’ top military officer has said the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State would “consider” intervening to protect such sites. But Gen. Martin Dempsey stopped far short of any promises – and added that any action would have to “fit into the priority of all the other things we’re being asked to do on behalf of Iraq.”
“All the other things we’re being asked to do on behalf of Iraq,” presumably includes training “moderate” rebels, though who these “moderates” are actually being trained to fight, ISIS or the Syrian government, remains unclear. This is, by the way, the same Martin Dempsey who claims that Israel “went to extraordinary lengths” to limit civilian casualties in its Gaza attack last summer.
As Israel’s chief enabler, the US has a primary moral responsibility to do everything possible to halt the destruction of antiquities. It also has a moral responsibility to stop ISIS, though the best way to go about this is not by putting American “boots” on the ground.
The Syrian Army is the best-trained and most highly motivated fighting force in the Middle East today. They are highly motivated because it is their own land and their own people that they are defending–and they, as well as their Hezbollah and Iranian allies, are deadly serious about stopping ISIS. If the US truly seeks to defeat the Islamic State, these are the forces it needs to be supporting. But of course Israel wants the government of Bashar Assad overthrown, and Syria and Iraq split into pieces, so an alliance of this sort doesn’t appear likely.
And for the same reason, attacks upon antiquities will probably continue as well.
The question is, how many of these antiquities will surface later in Israel?
doesn’t appear likely.
And for the same reason, attacks upon antiquities will probably continue as well.
The question is, how many of these antiquities will surface later in Israel?