Friday, June 04, 2004

From the Director of the IJS [Institute of Jewish Studies, University College, London]:

Spies, Thieves and Cultural Heritage

Mark Geller

Last summer, I was surprised to receive a telephone call from a senior journalist from The Guardian newspaper, asking me if I knew that my name was mentioned in official correspondence in the Iraq Museum in Baghdad. I was sent a copy of the letter in Arabic, and there was my name, written in Latin characters, together with the name of Professor Shaul Shaked from the Hebrew University. The letter was written by Donny George, Director of Research at the Iraq Museum, and he accused Mark Geller, 'the Jew', of intending to come to Baghdad with the American army in order to steal antiquities, and Shaul Shaked 'the Jew' was accused of planning to come to the Museum to spy out their collections for objects that particularly interested him. . . .

I cannot explain why this letter was written or the background to the accusations, but the anti-Semitic character of this letter points to a darker side of the current debate about cultural heritage and the handling of stolen antiquities. The issue of stolen antiquities has recently come to a head after the recent debacle in Iraq when some 12,000 objects (mostly small cylinder seals) were pilfered from the Iraq Museum, during the confusion of the early days of the war. . . . the international outrage was understandable and the reaction of law-makers to the events has been swift. Antiquities which were recently exported from their country of origin, such as Iraq, cannot be bought, sold, handled, or studied.


. . . But there is another side to this story.

Had the Unesco agreement been enacted and scrupulously enforced in 1948, the Dead Sea Scrolls would not have been available as they are today and a valuable part of our cultural heritage might easily have been lost. . . .

The particular situation in Iraq, however, merits special attention. Many of the sites in Iraq have Jewish Aramaic incantation bowls as surface finds, and these magic bowls date from the period of the Babylonian Talmud, c. 400-700 CE. These bowls reveal a great deal of useful social history about the Jewish community of Babylonia in late antiquity. . . .

Within the past decade, hundreds of Aramaic incantation bowls have appeared on the antiquities market, collected from archaeological sites; there is no evidence that these objects have been stolen from a museum. As such, there is no identifiable owner. The Iraq Museum in Baghdad also houses a large collection of some 400 Aramaic incantation bowls, at last count, but few of these have ever been published. No Iraqi scholar has worked on them, nor has any Jewish or Israeli scholar been allowed to publish them. . . .

He notes that countries have the right to say who can study their antiquities. For example, only Turkish nationals are permitted to work on unpublished antiquities in the Istanbul museum.
Nevertheless, the situation in Iraq is not quite comparable. Any scholar of any nationality was permitted to work in the Iraqi museums, provided that he could show a baptismal certificate. Only Jews were prohibited from working there, and in effect were denied access to their own cultural heritage.

During this past summer, Dr. Donny George of the Iraq Museum appeared in London at an international conference, and one of my colleagues from the USA went up to him and asked him directly when Jews will be able to work in the Iraq Museum in Baghdad. He simply shrugged his shoulders and replied, 'it's not my decision'.

Via Arthur Houghton on the IraqCrisis list, who asks, "Would anyone be able to comment on the accuracy of the allegations that underlie this article, in particular a) whether the letter cited exists in fact and b) that Jewish scholars may not be permitted to work in Iraq?"

Do read the whole article.

My take: first, I'm not up enough on the UNESCO agreement or the new antiquities laws in various countries to comment on them intelligently. I will say that undesirable knock-on effects of legislation, especially legislation enacted in a hurry in response to a disaster, are always something to keep an eye on. I don't know what the exact fate of ancient incantation bowls now on the antiquities market is likely to be in, say, America, Britain, or Europe, but I would be interested in hearing an informed opinion.

Second, this business about the letter the Guardian recovered and the old anti-Semitic policy of scholarly access to antiquities housed in Iraq is a matter for considerable concern. I'm sure that the Iraqi scholars and authorities realize that the old policy is no longer acceptable and continuation of it would alienate the whole scholarly community, which has been very supportive up to now, and would also turn away Western funders. But now that the issue has been raised, some reassurance would be, well, reassuring. Naturally the Iraqis will want to work out their own criteria for access by outsiders, but it would be helpful if someone would make it clear now that not being a Jew will not be one of them.

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