Will a Syrian victory at a posh London auction house accelerate Global Cultural Protections?
National Museum, Damascus
Over the past three years not many victories in Syria have been witnessed by this observer. Indeed some developments have even brought to mind Plutarch's description of the Greek King Pyrrhus ' defeat of the Roman legions some while back. But an achievement by the Syrian government and its people on 4/3/14 in an auction house in London is neither Pyrrhic, nor of the 'Another such victory and I am undone' variety.
The case involves an ancient black basalt stele (a stone or wooden slab, generally taller than it is wide, erected as a monument, very often for funerary or commemorative purposes). The artifact is of the Assyrian king Adad-Nerari III, who ruled Syria 2,800 years ago. With a weight of 830 kg, it measures 137.5 cm high, by 75 cm wide by 27 cm in depth. Many Syrian and international antiquities specialists believe it was stolen from Syria in 2000 after standing for nearly three thousand years in the temple of the god Sulmanu, in the ancient city of Dur Katlimmu, now known as Tell Sheikh Hamad. The tell is situated near the historic Khabour River between Hasaka and Deir al-Zour in eastern Syria, not far from Palmyra which this observer has visited recently.
Recently the object appeared in the possession of the British auction house, Bonhoms, a development that caused angst among archeologists in Syria and internationally. Exactly what happened next is a bit unclear, but the legal/political case was encapsulated in an urgent letter addressed to Dr. Maamooun Abkulkarem, the indefatigable Director-General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM) in Syria's Ministry of Culture, from a correspondent in Berlin. The letter arrived at DGAM on March 23, 2014.
"Dear Dr. Maamoun,
In the attachment I send you documentation on the stele of Tell Sheikh Hamad which is being offered for sale at Bonhams Auction house in London for April 3, 2014. According to my information UNESCO has already informed your government about this case. The only way to prohibit it from being sold is that your government responds to UNESCO, addresses Interpol, and request an investigation by the London police.
May I urge you Sir to inform your government quickly and act respectively before April 3!
Please note also this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FVucfdFWTdc
(Privacy of signer respected)
Dr. Maamoun and his dedicated Syrian nationalist team have been working nonstop (and some without pay for more than two years) to preserve, protect and plan for reconstruction of Syria's, and by extension the world's, cultural heritage. They and others are committed to stopping archeological theft, a phenomenon which has become more rampant since the current crisis erupted. The thefts have not been restricted solely to the rebel-held north or other areas not always under government control; they have also been a problem near Syria's borders with Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon, and to a lesser extent Iraq, and in some cases, stolen treasures have also been smuggled out of Syria by aircraft.
An international campaign is being launched to save our Global Culture Heritage in the custody of the people of the Syrian Arab Republic
Despite these crimes, the past few
weeks have seen commendable cooperation between Lebanon and Syria leading to
hundreds of Syrian antiquities being returned to Syria. On Syrian and Lebanese
roads these days, soldiers at the frequent checkpoints not only look for
explosives, wanted persons, and weapons, but they have orders at Syrian-Lebanon
borders to search for more than 4000 stolen Syrian antiquities. A few hundred
objects were returned to Syria this past year, and some are back on display in
the garden of the National Museum in Damascus, where this observer photographed
Unfortunately there has been little, if any, help in stopping the flow of stolen Syrian antiquities into Jordan or Turkey, whose governments reportedly continue to turn a blind eye, ignoring their international obligations for reasons of politics and profit. In the case of Jordan, it has been widely alleged that King Abdullah's government is condoning shipments of stolen Syrian artifacts, via Israeli drug and antiquities mafia operations. These international criminal enterprises then forward the global cultural treasures from Israeli ports and Tel Aviv airport to lucrative international markets--museums, auction houses, or private collectors in New York, London, Switzerland, Germany, Spain and elsewhere. With respect to Turkey, much of the 500 mile border is open to excavation teams sent in to strip Syria of her archeological treasures, again with widespread charges of Turkish government involvement.
Two DGAM staff members and scholars, Khaled and Iyam, explaining to a Damascus National Museum visitor details of a dozen recently returned (3/2014) Syrian antiquities with the sisterly cooperation of the government of Lebanon
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