Mideast Antiques Roadshow
Upheaval in Egypt and Libya has led to widespread looting—and the plunder is being sold on the Israeli market
Even though they’d been sawn in half, the items were unmistakable to the Israeli Antiquities Authority officials inspecting Jerusalem’s Old City shops: Two ancient Egyptian wooden coffin lids, dating back as far as the 14th century BCE.
What hands brought those Egyptian coffin lids into the Jerusalem shop remains a mystery for now. But how the lids got to Israel is slightly clearer. According to one report they were smuggled from Egypt to Dubai and then shipped to Israel for resale, under a now closed loophole in Israeli law. Whether they traveled by land, sea, or air isn’t known, but the choice of venue—the Israeli antiquities market—was deliberate.
Looting archaeological sites in the Middle East is as old as ancient towns and cemeteries themselves. In the past—with the exception of plundering tombs of the rich and powerful—this was merely a form of recycling, as expensive metal and exotic objects were put back into circulation from beyond the grave.
But beginning at least 300 years ago, such items began to be rechristened as “antiquities,” regarded as precious and irreplaceable artifacts that provide knowledge of and a tangible connection to an otherwise inaccessible past. This evolving consciousness led to antiquities collecting in the name of connoisseurship, then to national glory and scholarship. But collecting was also constrained—sometimes barely—by imperial and then national laws. Today a patchwork of local laws and international agreements restricts the illegal excavation, sale, and import of antiquities.
Under nationalist regimes in countries like Iraq, selling antiquities was strictly prohibited. But after the fall of Saddam Hussein, looters roamed freely across the country, outnumbering and outgunning the few remaining antiquities guards. Where previously Saddam and his minions had occasionally treated themselves to museum-quality items, now ancient cities were transformed into cratered moonscapes as hundreds of looters pillaged for days and months. Most of the material disappeared from view—sold, it seems, to nouveau riche collectors and resellers in the Gulf states and Europe.
The unpleasant reality is that in Iraq—and now, thanks to the upheaval of the Arab Spring, Libya, and Egypt—authoritarian regimes kept archaeological sites and museums relatively well protected. Hosni Mubarak, Muammar Qaddafi, and Saddam patronized antiquities to demonstrate their sophistication and development, exercise control over Western intellectuals who wished to study them, and to pose as heirs to the royal traditions of the past. For regular Egyptians, Iraqis, Libyans, and perhaps soon Syrians, the fall of these regimes has created an opening to strike back at hated symbols and to make some good money.
In the wake of the collapse of Mubarak’s regime, Egyptians—some hungry, some angry at the regime that identified itself as the patron of the past, some who hate the past on Islamic grounds, and some merely criminals—are looting sites, cemeteries, antiquities warehouses, and, most spectacularly, the Egyptian Museum in Cairo at the height of anti-government protests in January 2011. Looting is particularly rampant, including, according to one recent report, in iconic locations such as the shadows of the great pyramids of Giza. (In Egypt the past faces additional threats. Salafi leaders like Abdel-Men’em Shahat are repeating their calls for statues of the pharaohs to be covered in wax “because they resembled the idols that were present in Mecca.”)
Israel’s security situation may have declined with the Arab Spring, but its reputation in the region as a reliable tourist destination where antiquities are available to those that can afford them has been a boon. The coffin covers are only one example of valuable treasures that have mysteriously appeared on the Israeli market. But while Israel’s openness is great for tourists and collectors, it poses a very serious threat to the integrity of the country’s antiquities and archaeological sites.
Israel has long been one of the only Middle Eastern countries where it is legal to sell and buy antiquities. The country’s antiquities law, adopted in 1978, states that all objects created before 1700 are antiquities and belong to the state. But the law also stipulates that collections assembled before the law passed in 1978 may be sold by licensed dealers. Dealers have therefore managed to secure a never-ending supply of artifacts from “pre-1978” collections, thanks to creative inventorying.
Every year, tourists looking for souvenirs and collectors looking for serious artifacts spend millions in the antiquities shops of Jerusalem and Jaffa. Most objects on offer are pots from Israel and the West Bank, sold for a few hundred or thousand dollars: coins and scarabs (many, if not most, fakes), figurines in stone or pottery, pieces of glass and ivory, and the like. A smaller number, like the Egyptian coffin lids, come from further afield.
Professor Morag Kersel of DePaul University has extensively researched how the local antiquities industry works. It is another of the countless examples of Israeli-Palestinian economic cooperation. The industry consists of Palestinian overseers with some knowledge of archaeological sites and market demand who dispatch gangs of professional looters, both Israelis and Palestinians, to sites. Many looters work construction by day and then loot by night, sometimes from the sites on which they are building. Goods are then transferred to Palestinian middlemen, usually from a higher economic class or with connections to one of the long-established antiquities retailing families, who then sell the artifacts to Bedouin (who also loot and transport antiquities themselves as long-standing family traditions). They finally sell to the dealers, both Arab and Israeli. Kersel has found that more than 50 percent of antiquities dealers are Palestinian, and most have been in the business for generations. Wealthy Palestinians from abroad are some of the most avid collectors.
The damage from looting is immense, and patrols from the Israel Antiquities Authority lie in ambush on dark nights to catch thieves in the act. Already in 1989 archaeologists David Ilan, Uzi Dahari, and Gideon Avni estimated that 6,000 ancient tombs in the Judaean foothills alone had been looted since 1967 to supply the antiquities markets. Looters searching for inscribed items, such as seals or carved architectural elements, have also torn into countless other village and town sites in pursuit of these most rare objects.
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