Showing posts with label Iraq. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Iraq. Show all posts

September 12, 2017

Repatriation: United States will return Iraqi Jewish Archive to Iraq in 2018.

Books and documents from the Iraqi Jewish Archive prior to conservation

On May 6, 2003, in the flooded basement of Saddam Hussein’s Mukhabarat headquarters, American soldiers from MET (Mobile Exploitation Team) Alpha, led by now-retired Chief Warrant Officer Richard “Monty” Gonzales, found thousands of Jewish communal and religious books in Arabic and Hebrew that appeared to record the life of Iraq's Jewish community  which flourished for over 2,500 years in the region of Babylonia. Unfortunately, the cache of historic items was discovered floating in hip-deep wastewater in the recently-liberated, bomb-damaged headquarters.

Former Chief Warrant Officer Richard Gonzales in waist-deep
sewage water in the basement of Saddam Hussein’s
Mukhabarat headquarters in Baghdad. Image Credit: Richard Gonzales

For emergency assistance in preserving the trove of books, manuscripts and documents, some dating from the mid-sixteenth to late twentieth century, Doris Hamburg, then Director of Preservation Programs at the United States National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) preservation program was contacted by the Coalition Provisional Author­ity in Baghdad.



Hamburg and Mary Lynn Ritzenthaler, Chief of the Document Conservation Laboratory, in cooperation with the Iraqi officials, recommended freezing the documents as soon as possible as heat and humidity would produce a conservator's worst enemy: mold.  Freezing as a short-term solution is a common method which can quickly stabilize mold infestations until such time as an appropriate treatment to dry out materials can be undertaken.  The ability to freeze documents buys conservators time, allowing fragile material to be preserved until the documents can be sorted with care and worked on in a priority-centric  and carefully informed pace. 

Heeding NARA's advice, those on the ground moved the waterlogged damaged, and by now moldy documents into 27 large steel trunks.  In turn, these 2,700 books and thousands of Jewish paper documents were placed in a requisitioned freezer truck for storage until August 17, 2003 when a deal was struck between NARA and Iraq’s interim government.    

Citing Iraq's Antiquities Law No. 55, Dr Jaber Khalil Ibrahim, Chairman of the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities and Heritage at the Iraqi Ministry of Culture agreed to send the documents to the United States on a temporary basis, to allow NARA to undertake emergency conservation, on the condition that the material would be returned to Iraq within two years.

As their part of the agreement, NARA agreed to cover overhead costs for administrative functions, lab use, storage and utilities.  The US Military provided the security and transport of the archive from Baghdad to the United States where conservation treatment would occur. 

The trunks were brought to BMS Catastrophe (BMS CAT), a freeze drying company in Ft. Worth Texas utilized by NARA which deals with catastrophic damage and where salvage operations on the documents would start in earnest. Cleaning the documents of mold would be a complicated process, as those working with the materials would be required to wear protective suits for their own health and safety. 

Successful recovery of water-damaged archival materials is usually done in one of two ways: evaporation or sublimation, depending on the state of the water before it passes to vapor and escapes from the materials being conserved.  Water in the wet state can evaporate via air drying but this is not always the optimal method of choice. When freeze dried in controlled atmospheric conditions, water in its solid state, ice, will sublimate and can then be removed from the materials while still in its gaseous phase, without passing through the liquid phase. 

Freeze drying in a vacuum chamber was the conservation method of choice for the Iraqi Jewish Archive given the large numbers of waterlogged and damaged books, some of which had water-sensitive inks and coated paper.  It also limited the problems of bleeding and tidelines on the materials and helps to minimize document shrinkage and brittleness. Ultimately, vacuum freeze drying the texts allowed mold, mud, dirt, and dust to be vacuumed from the surface of the material in a controlled manner, so that conservators could focus their attention on reparations of the archive's contents, prioritizing which objects needed treatment first.  

A lengthy process, the archive's preservation at times has been hampered by funding concerns. As the Iraqi Jewish Archive is not a U.S. govern­ment collection, the United States National Archives and Records Administration funds could not be used for the conservation project.  Outside funding, provided by private donors, foundations or indirectly via other government agencies with authority was needed.

Many philanthropic Jewish organizations balked at funding the conservation and cataloguing initiative knowing that it was highly likely that the collection would ultimately be returned to Baghdad and not remain in the United States or Israel. 

In late 2005, $98,000 was allocated via the National Endowment to the the Center for Jewish History who facilitated the second phase of the preservation project.  To establish preservation priorities for Phase II Susan Duhl and conservation technician were contracted to work under the direction of the National Archives to assess and document the condition of the collection. 

Focusing on proper storage, the pair inventoried the material and took digital photographs used to establish a preliminary digital archive and catalogue, which, with language expertise, could then help set priorities as to what documents were in the collection as well as what actually should be preserved first. 

Experts knowledgeable in Levant and Jewish history met in May 2010 and offered recommendations regarding priorities for preservation, access, and to discuss the potential of an online digital archive and exhi­bitions.

In 2011 the US Department of State allocated an additional 2.97 million for was was to be the final phase of the preservation project.  This funding specified that the project was to be completed in 2014, with the objects to be repatriated June 2014. 

On May 14, 2014, Lukman Faily, the Iraqi ambassador to the US, announced that the Iraqi government had authorized an extension period in which the archive could remain in the United States for a while longer, with key pieces displayed on exhibition.

The four-year extension to keep the Iraqi Jewish Archive in the U.S. is set to expire in September 2018. 

Call it cultural preservation, cultural imperialism, or call it stealing. 

Since the initial transfer of the Iraqi Jewish Archive to the United States, the question of its eventual repatriation to Iraq has been a source of continual contention.  Some argue that Iraq viciously persecuted its Jews and given their displacement, the archive should never be repatriated, belonging instead to the country's displaced jews. 

Others argue that the US is ethically bound to repatriate as they singularly promised the Iraqi Coalition Provisional Author­ity in Baghdad they would do so. 

Speaking to some individuals in Iraq, some feel strongly that the US government intervened solely because of the Jewish nature of the damaged objects.  They resent the special attention this archive received while other important archival documents and rare books belonging to the Iraq National Library and Archive, also impacted by the same type of wastewater flooding, were neglected. [NB the archival materials removed from the INLA were far more extensive than the Jewish documents held by the Mukhabarat and didn't fair as well with regards to preservation]. 

Marc Masurovsky of the Holocaust Art Restitution Project has said that while it appears that the US government is now of a mind to finally return these artifacts to Iraq in 2018, there will be others in clear opposition to that repatriation. 

He writes: 


Sigal Samuel, a self described Iraqi Jew, argues that the archive should go home. 

In a 2014 article in favor of the their return she stated:


On the argument of accessibility by Jewish readers when the artifacts go home Samuel argued:

"I understand that returning the archive to Iraq would make it difficult or impossible for most Jews — particularly Israelis — to safely access it. But even though I myself am saddled with an Israeli name and citizenship, I still don’t think this is an argument for keeping the archive in the U.S. I think it’s an argument for digitization — a process that’s already underway. Or it’s an argument for setting up loans, which would allow the exhibit to be housed permanently in Iraq but travel every few years to this or that Jewish population center.

In digital-age America, we take it for granted that everything we love should be at our fingertips. But relinquishing that luxury sometimes comes with distinct advantages. When it comes to returning this trove to Iraq, the advantages are clear: There, it will serve a vital educational purpose, both for world Jewry and for non-Jewish Iraq."

In a statement to the Jewish Telegraph Service this week, State Department spokesman Pablo Rodriguez said the four-year extension to keep the Iraqi Jewish Archive in the U.S. will expire in September 2018, as will funding for maintaining and transporting the contents of the archive. Outside of a new agreement being drawn up and signed between the Government of Iraq and a temporary host institution or government it looks like the archive is finally going to be repatriated.

Portions of the archive, featuring 23 recovered items and a “behind the scenes” video of the painstaking preservation process will be on display at the Jewish Museum of Maryland from October 15, 2017 until January 15, 2018.

Highlights include:

For more details please see:
https://www.ija.archives.gov/
https://www.archives.gov/files/publications/prologue/2013/fall-winter/ija.pdf

July 6, 2017

Civil Complaint requires forfeiture of thousands of cuneiform tablets and clay bullae, but is that enough?

Cuneiform Tablet - Image Credit U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of New York
By: Lynda Albertson


At the heart of the investigation, were import irregularities related to ancient artifacts shipped to Hobby Lobby, Mardel, Inc. and Crafts, Etc! The firms Mardel, Inc. and Crafts, Etc! were affiliates of Hobby Lobby and both maintained their principal corporate offices adjacent to Hobby Lobby’s headquarters in Oklahoma City.  

The antiquities were shipped to Hobby Lobby and their associates by dealers in Israel and the United Arab Emirates (“UAE”), all of whom have been left unnamed in the civil complaint.  The objects were shipped without required customs entry documentation being filed with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and bore shipping labels that falsely and misleadingly described their contents and their value, in some cases as “ceramic tiles” or “clay tiles (sample).” In truth, the mislabeled objects were ancient clay and stone artifacts that originate from the area of modern day Iraq, which had been smuggled into the United States after their contracted purchase in the Middle East. 

Hobby Lobby's growing Green Collection is purported to be the largest private collection of rare biblical texts and artifacts worldwide and is estimated to be made up of more than 40,000 biblical-related antiquities, purchased and assembled by the Green family, who are founders of the national arts and crafts chain.  The bulk of this collection is intended to be displayed in their 430,000-square-foot Museum of the Bible, which is scheduled to open in Washington DC in November of 2017.

As is often the case with illicit antiquities smuggled around the globe, the intercepted packages, destined eventually to join the museum's collection, had their shipping labels intentionally mislabeled, stating the country of origin as imports from Turkey and Israel, not Iraq.  The shippers also used multiple shipping addresses for objects destined for a single recipient.  This too is a technique used by smugglers of all types, not just illicit antiquities, as it is a means of avoiding scrutiny by customs authorities. 

In the DOJ press release Bridget M. Rohde, Acting United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, and Karin Orenstein, Assistant United States Attorney, of counsel, announced that Hobby Lobby Stores has agreed to pay a $3 million federal fine and forfeit thousands of ancient Iraqi artifacts believed to have been smuggled in 15 shipments, 5 of which were stopped by the CBP on their way to the Greens.   

Hobby Lobby had executed an agreement to purchase the objects, despite their likely illicit origins, in 2010 for $1.6 million.  They paid for the antiquities via wire payments to seven personal bank accounts held in the names of five individuals.  This despite noticeable suspicious irregularities in the objects purported provenance and no direct contact with the objects' "owner.  The civil complaint also outlines conversations related to the purchase and import which indicate intentional changes to invoices and shipment to disguise the objects' value, and in some cases to change to purported seller. 

As DOJ documents state Title 19, United States Code, Section 1595a(c)(1)(A) provides that “merchandise which is introduced or attempted to be introduced into the United States contrary to law . . . shall be seized and forfeited if it . . . is stolen, smuggled, or clandestinely imported or introduced.”

Legal measures specific to Iraq also make it a violation of U.S. law to import any cultural objects removed from Iraq since August 1990, unless exported with the permission of Iraqi authorities.  Illegally importing objects that meet this criteria are subject to criminal penalties and fines.

Equally important Under Article 3 of Iraq’s Antiquities Law No. 59 of 1936 (as amended in 1974 and 1975), all antiquities found in Iraq, whether movable or
immovable, on or under the ground, are considered property of the state. Under Article 16 of Antiquities Law No. 59, private persons generally cannot possess antiquities. Article 26 of the same antiquities law prohibits the export of Iraqi antiquities and defines “antiquities” as movable possessions which were made, produced, sculpted, written or drawn by man and which are at least 200 years old.  Southern Mesopotamian objects definitely fall into this category as any collections management expert in Near East antiquity would be aware of.


Is a $3 million fine and the forfeiture of 450 ancient cuneiform tablets and 3,000 ancient clay bullae enough?

As a result of this investigation, Hobby Lobby has agreed to adopt internal policies and procedures governing its importation and purchase of cultural property, provide appropriate training to its personnel, hire qualified outside customs counsel and customs brokers, and submit quarterly reports to the government on any cultural property acquisitions for the next eighteen months.


So much for remorse. 

NB: No one has faced criminal prosecution (read: jail time) for their actions. 

December 25, 2016

How long does it take looted antiquities from the middle east to resurface? A heck of a long time.

When people query ARCA about why the world is not seeing more looted Syrian, Iraqi, Yemeni, and  Libyan antiquities on the market, given the continued unrest and looting in these countries, I usually respond resolutely with "it's just too soon."  I underscore this because I know there is a lot at stake, and I know that governments and the media want to be able to draw clearer lines between the world's current terrorist groups, organised crime and heritage looting.

Art can disappear and not resurface for decades after it was stolen and most art crime scholars will agree that the most valuable pieces are kept off the licit market by savvy traffickers and generally don't resurface until the world's interest is diverted, sometimes decades later.  

Case in point, this gazelle-skinned Kuwaiti manuscript.  Time to market? 26 years. 


Acting upon accurate information received by Iraqi security forces concerning a dealer of ancient manuscripts believed to be plying his clandestine trade in the Babil Governorate (also known as the Babylon Province ), law enforcement authorities formed a crime-fighting task force in the region south of Baghdad, hoping to catch the art criminal in the act. 

Under the command of Colonel Adham al-Salihi, director of the anticrime team in Babylon and in coordination with the National Security Directorate and the region's Economic Crimes Department, authorities subsequently arrested three people this week, both buyers and sellers, at a cafe in the city of Hilla.  Each has been accused of furthering the smuggling of antiquities.  In their possession was a historic manuscript, complete with the National Museum of Kuwait's seal on its reverse side.  Kuwaiti news reports state the object was stolen by a former soldier in the Iraqi army during the 1990 invasion of Kuwait, also known as the Iraq–Kuwait War.


Kuwaiti museum authorities are still looking for more than 450 objects looted during the conflict between Saddam Hussein’s Ba'athist government and the Emirate of Kuwait, objects that went missing during the seven-month-long Iraqi occupation of Kuwait. Many of these antiquities are feared lost forever, most likely sold illicitly, like the one recovered this week, when sold to private individuals in post-Saddam Iraq and elsewhere in the nearby Arab world. 

Rarely, do pieces like these turn up early on the Western powerhouse art markets, though in 1996, a 16th century emerald, ruby and turquoise-encrusted Moghul dagger was spotted on the cover of a Sotheby's auction catalogue.  With supporting identification documents from the Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah (DAI) at Kuwait National Museum (KNM), the country's museum authorities were able to stop the sale and the dagger was eventually reliquished to the museum's collection. 

Pending completion of the investigation, the parchment seized this week will remain with the Iraqi authorities for safekeeping and further identification before being eventually returned to the Kuwait museum.

By: Lynda Albertson

December 19, 2016

Who saves the culture of Mesopotamia and the Levant - Part I

In the first of a series, ARCA will be highlighting some of the people on a mission to protect and/or seize back the cultural heritage of Iraq and Syria, from those who seek to profit from or destroy it.

Since the start of the conflict, ARCA has received frequent queries from people concerned about the theft and destruction of sites throughout the Levant.  Often we are asked if anything is doing about the situation. While the form of the question often is posed in the singular format of what is anyone doing specifically about ISIS, ARCA would like to underscore that the problem of looting and destruction is not restricted to one identifiable nemesis operating in conflict zones, although Da'esh has been particularly adept at making a public display of its iconoclasm. 

Today's blog post highlights one forward-thinker in Iraq, who has show what can be done, if people think about a problem in advance of when they are actually faced with one. 

On July 20, 2014 jihadist troops of the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant took control of the Monastery of the Martyrs Mar Behnam and Marth Sarah, a monastery located near the predominantly Christian town of Qaraqosh, 30 km southwest of Mosul, in the Nineveh Plain of Iraq.  The site dates back to the 4th century CE.   

Occupying the site, the militants ejected the Syriac Orthodox monks with nothing more than the clothing on their backs, refusing to allow them to take any of the church's sacred objects.  In fear for their lives, the monastery's guardians were forcefully ejected and walked some ten kilometers before intersecting with Kurdish Peshmerga forces.  

On Thursday, March 19, 2015 ISIS fighters released footage which showed that they had rigged the tombs of Mar Behnam and Mart Sarah with explosives, dramatically detonating the monastery's revered historic shrines.    

Image Credit: Alsumaria News 
While the church at the Monastery of the Martyrs Mar Behnam and Marth Sarah itself was not earmarked for detonation along with its shrines, the historic site would did suffer extensive vandalism.  During its occupation, religious wall decorations were drilled out, and/or defaced. Inscriptions written in Syriac were scraped off the walls, crosses were taken down, and statues knocked to the ground and smashed. Throughout the monastery extensive graffiti was scrawled on practically every available surface.

The statue of Mar Behnam on horseback, dating from the 16th century,
has been completely destroyed
Sadly, as the desecration took place after the dramatic footage of the damages to the Mosul Museum and just before the demolition of Nimrud, the world's press gave the monastery's fate little in the way of press coverage.  Those that research iconoclasm tried to take limited comfort in the knowledge that some of the monastery's important manuscripts, dating back centuries, had been digitized. 

Dr. Lamia al-Gailanim, an associate fellow at the London-based Institute of Archaeology, reminded list-serv members of the Iraqi crisis group that Mosul had twelve Medieval shines with muqarnas domes.  In total, the exquisite remains accounted for half of what the country of Iraq had in terms of this specific style of monumental vaulted architecture.  By 2015, as Da'esh gained more and more territory, all the Mosul-area domed shrines suffered attacks.

On Sunday, November 20, 2016 the Baghdad-backed Babylon Brigades in cooperation with the Iraqi army liberated the Monastery of the Martyrs Mar Behnam and Marth Sarah and the world got its first look at the damages inflicted. It is believed that the militants may have occupied the site as a base of operations and some news reports have said the site was utilized by Da'esh's morality police. Whatever the case, the group's trademark shows throughout the trashed the interior.

As the mixed military force secured the site and the zones surrounding the monastery, the first photos of the extent of the rampage were released on social media.  Little had been spared.  Even the grave marker for Monsignor Francis Djahola, who was a well known part of the monastery religious community until his recent death, had been desecrated.

Father Yousif Sakat
Then, on December 9, 2016, those affiliated with the monastery announced something joyfully unexpected. 

Thanks to the forward thinking of Father Yousif Sakat, over 400 books and manuscripts, some illustrated by hand and dating back 800 years, had been kept safe.  Miraculously, they had been hidden directly under the noses of the militants. 

As a custodian for the monastery’s Medieval collection, Father Sakat knew that if he abandoned the monastery and left the library collection behind, it would be vulnerable to destruction or potential looting.  Sakat watched as the situation grew increasingly tense and as the nearby cities succumbed to the rule of ISIS.  As the militants grew bolder, he noted that individuals had defaced the monastery’s exterior and on occasion, hurled stones at the building to intimidate its occupants. 

Anticipating that the jihadist would eventually take control of the monastery and knowing that they might set fire to the collection, Sakat started to think about what he could do to protect the collection himself.

The fast-thinking priest moved the monastery's most important books and manuscripts into metal drums. He then placed these containers in a discreet area where he hoped they would avoid suspicion.  He then sealed the hiding place shut with a wall of concealing cement.

In December 2016, once the father felt sure the site was no longer at risk of possible recapture, he and a team of workers returned to recover the books from their hidden storage chamber.

Publishing the extraction on Facebook Amjad Hinawi uploaded 49 images of the remarkable books as the room was breached and reopened and the collection retrieved. ARCA has posted a selection of these photos here with the group's permission.


Just as the 72-year-old librarian from Mali successfully saved his own country's collection by stuffing them into millet bags and smuggling them out of harm's way, Father Sakat's ingenuity shows that a lot can be done, even when practically everything else has been lost. 

Having said that, there is a palpable urgency to better preserve these rich and varied historic collections, especially those at smaller religious sites, with little means and funding.  It is no longer cost prohibitive to digitize and catalog literary historic records and vulnerable sites such as these need to consider what potential risks their might be, now or in the future to their original collections.

Consideration before a threat occurs.

Just asking the simple question what are we doing about this (now), followed by what can be done better (before a threat or crisis occurs) in a first step in emergency preparedness.   Even in times of economic hardship or political unrest cultural heritage institutions with limited staff can make a world of difference to an otherwise grim outcome.

Luckily, the collection from the Monastery of the Martyrs Mar Behnam and Marth Sarah was not stored inside the shrines that Da'esh detonated.

Luckily, many of its manuscripts were already digitized.

Luckily, Father Yousif Sakat had the foresight, time and the means to purchase and use the supplies needed to hide his monastery's collection.

But what if any one of those things hadn't happened?

For now, the library of the Monastery of the Martyrs Mar Behnam and Marth Sarah are being stored elsewhere for safekeeping.


November 19, 2016

Conference: Iraq and Syria: Archaeological Heritage between Risks and Perspectives


CPAVO: Strategy-setting Conference of the Archaeologists of the Near East

Iraq and Syria: Archaeological Heritage between Risks and Perspectives

Location:  Palagio dei Capitani di Parte Guelfa, Florence, Italy

Dates:  16-17 December 2016

Cost:  Free, Deadline for Registration 04/12/16

Note:  The spoken language of the conference is Italian. 

The event, organized by CAMNES (Center for Ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern Studies), in collaboration with the Municipality of Florence (UNESCO Office) and the Academy of Arts and Design of Florence, on the occasion of the anniversary of the inscription of the Historic Center of Florence in the UNESCO World Heritage List, which took place on December 17, 1982, is a part of active collaboration between the city of Florence and UNESCO and follows the latest initiatives, such as the third UNESCO Forum on cultural industries in 2014 and the recent global summit of Mayors 'Unity in Diversity 2015', after which the Charter of Florence was signed.

On the basis of what is reported in the Charter of Florence to the points set forth below this event will:

• support the UNESCO campaign #United4Heritage regarding the defense of the cultural heritage; encourage the establishment of scientific committees in support of the "Blue Helmets of Culture" - promoted by the Italian government - and support programs of international cooperation for the preservation and protection of heritage;

• make available to UNESCO and its National Commissions, Governments and local administrations a network of specialists, particularly in the field of conservation and heritage management, in order to activate a protection network of cultural and natural heritage, endangered by conflicts and natural disaster events;

CAMNES and the Municipality of Florence (UNESCO Office) have constituted a Scientific and Organizing Committee, which met in Florence on June 28th with the specific purpose to define and organize this upcoming event. The project behind this conference is based on the fact that the scientific community of archaeologists of the Near East is able to make an active and important contribution in addressing not only academic and field research issues, but most importantly those related to prevention, conservation and enhancement of archaeological and cultural heritage in contexts currently affected by conflicts, more specifically Iraq and Syria.

For these reasons they felt necessary to bring together all the scholars of this discipline – currently active, involved or potentially interested in projects of excavations and research in Syria and Iraq - with the aim of producing concrete proposals and projects based on the following topics:

HERITAGE AT RISK: elements related to specific contexts and issues pertaining to the critical assessment of specialists. Analysis of specific issues regarding archaeological sites, architectural monuments and museums in the affected areas, as well as preventive mode of action.

LOCAL STRATEGIES OF PROTECTION / OPERATIONAL MODELS: identification and development - including a critical approach to the past – of new research and conservation methodologies, which satisfy the changing requirements of action and the necessities imposed by specific contexts. Already implemented best practices/projects to be disseminated and shared in integrated projects developed jointly by various actors. Rules, laws and bureaucracy issues, including questions related to the illicit trafficking in antiquities. 

ARCHAEOLOGIST AS A SOURCE OF INFORMATION IN THE CONTEXT OF CRISIS: archaeology, as a social science, is strongly connected with the contemporary society. Archaeologists as "cultural mediators" – between, on the one hand, cultures of the past and present and, on the other, between the Western culture and those of  host countries - in addition to the official relations with the local authorities, operate completely immersed in the socio-cultural areas in which they operate; archaeologists’ privileged position, rendering them both witnesses and sources of information in times of conflict and crisis.

PUBLIC ARCHAEOLOGY and COMMUNICATION: analysis of critical issues pertinent to the relationship with local communities ("Local perception of cultural heritage") for the protection and enhancement of heritage. Development of communication and dissemination strategies based on activities undertaken and planned by archaeologists on-site.

STAKEHOLDERS: avenues of interaction with the scientific community and institutions in host countries (regarding both excavations and museums). Issues relating to training of the local staff.

For a detailed list of the event's Programme as well as details on the Scientific and Organizing Committee please see the CAMNES website here.


Posted BY:  Summer Clowers

October 23, 2016

Sunday, October 23, 2016 - ,,,, No comments

Another case for the ICC? Iconoclast who detonated the Maqam of Prophet Yunus (Jonah) confesses on tape after capture

In Mosul's frightening and uncertain future, perhaps one bit of hopeful news may be developing.  It appears that the Iraqi Shi'ite paramilitary group Al Nujaba has released a video with a captured combatant who claims to have been one of the iconoclasts responsible for the destruction of the Shrine of Jonah/Mosque of Yunus (Nineveh, Mosul, Iraq). 



The newly released video also appears to circle out a specific male individual who, from the footage, also seems to be implicated in the destruction of statues and artifacts within the Mosul Museum.

During the video, the captured militant admits that he was part of Daesh's Hisbah [the religious police] and admits to bombing three different bridges as well as taking part in the attacks on the Hatra ruins and the destruction at Prophet Yona's tomb. 

The Mosul Museum is the second largest museum in Iraq after the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad.  A video showing the destruction of historic artifacts was widely circulated by Daesh on February 26, 2015.

As the image in the recent video is quite blurry, ARCA has uploaded a screenshot from the original Mosul Museum destruction video which shows the individual, dressed in a long sleeved robe called a dishdasha, in higher definition. 


Military offensives to recapture cities from a dug-in military force are always fraught with peril.  If fighting forces manage to recapture the city of Mosul, it will be the fifth time in thirteen years of conflict that the city has changed hands since 2003. As the history of previous offensives in Iraq has painfully demonstrated, in liberating Mosul, one group’s victory does not necessarily bode equally well for others divided along different ethnic and sectarian lines.

By: Lynda Albertson

April 27, 2016

US Government sends H.R. 1493 to the US President’s desk for signature.

Late in the day, April 26, 2016 and with final House passage, the US government has approved its final amended version of H.R. 1493, "The Protect and Preserve International Cultural Property Act" agreed to in the Senate by Unanimous Consent. The proposed law will now head to the US President’s desk for signature.

H.R. 1493 was drafted to deny ISIS Funding and to save Syria’s antiquities through the trafficking of its material culture.

The bill was introduced in the United States House of Representatives on March 19, 2015 during the 114th Congress, First Session by Representative Eliot L. Engel, [D-NY-16] via the House - Armed Services; Foreign Affairs; Judiciary; Ways and Means Committee and also referred to the Committee on Foreign Affairs.  The bill calls for the protection and preservation of international cultural property at risk due to political instability, armed conflict, or natural or other disasters, and for other purposes.  

Since that time the House and Senate have debated the bill separately and offered amendments (ultimately approved as amended by the Senate on April 18, 2016, before the bill went on to all of the US Congress for a full vote. The amended version includes a stronger "safe harbour" measure for Syrian antiquities and deleted a the proposed State Department "Cultural Property Czar."  

As both the Senate and the House have now voted approving the finalized amended version of the bill, it will now go forward to Barack Obama, the 44th President of the United States, for his signatory approval.


ISIS earns tens of millions annually from looting and trafficking antiquities to fund terror.  A UN Security Council resolution passed in February calls on all nations to help defund ISIS by preventing trade in Syrian antiquities. 
America’s allies have already imposed import restrictions on trafficked Syrian and Iraqi artifacts.  Congress established similar restrictions for Iraqi artifacts in 2004 but has yet to act for Syria, leaving Syrian artifacts open to looting and trafficking by ISIS.
H.R. 1493
  • Imposes import restrictions on illicit Syrian artifacts to undercut looting and trafficking.
  • Provides for antiquities to be temporarily protected by U.S. institutions until they can be safely returned to their rightful owners.
  • Expresses congressional support for establishing an interagency coordinating committee to better protect historical sites and artifacts at risk worldwide. 
  • Improves congressional oversight of efforts to save cultural property.
This bill has been publicly endorsed and supported by the American Alliance of Museums, the American Anthropological Association, the American Institute for Conservation of Historic & Artistic Works, the Archaeological Institute of America, Preservation Action, the Society for American Archaeology, the Society for Historical Archaeology, the United States Committee of the Blue Shield, and the U.S. National Committee of the International Council of Museums.

Once signed by President Obama and by imposing import restrictions on Syrian material culture, the U.S. will be joining the United Kingdom, Switzerland, and the European Union in taking steps to protect trafficked antiquities from Syria.

A complete copy of the approved amended Bill is located here

Representative Eliot L. Engel, Ranking Member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs welcomed the Senate passage of his legislation. 

On the House floor Chairman Royce spoke about combating ISIS’s destruction and looting of artifacts from the birthplace of civilisation.  Below is a video that includes Chairman Royce’s remarks.  A written transcript of his remarks can be found here




January 20, 2016

Confirmation Saint Elijah's Monastery (دير مار إيليا), Iraq, Destroyed


Following a request by the Associated Press earlier this month, Digital Globe, a global provider of high-resolution Earth-imagery products and services, provided the news service with imagery which appears to confirm that the monastery known in English as the Saint Elijah Monastery or the Dair Mar Elia, ((دير مار إيليا) has been obliterated by ISIS/ISIL sometime prior to September 28, 2014.  It was the oldest known Christian monastery in Iraq.  

The oldest monastery in Iraq dated back 1400 ago.
 أقدم دير في العراق يعود تاريحه الى ١٤٠٠ سنة
Nearby cities: Mosul, Erbil / Hewler, Kirkûk
Coordinates:   36°17'33"N   43°7'51"E
Image Credit AP/Digital Globe/Google

Located on a hill south of Mosul, local Chaldean leaders place the monastery's age back to the fourth century after Christ.  Other evidence indicates that the original monastery on this site was built around 571 CE during the reign of the Persian King Hurmizd IV.  Assuming that this date is accurate, the monastery predates the founding of Islam by about one hundred years.  

Imagery obtained for comparison by AP before and after compared with earlier amateur videos shot by US military personnel during cultural awareness site visits seem to suggest that the monastery has either been bulldozed completely or detonated to the ground level.

Irina Bokova, director general of UNESCO, said “such deliberate destruction is a war crime and it must not stay unpunished. It also reminds us how terrified by history the extremists are, because understanding the past undermines the pretexts they use to justify these crimes and exposes them as expressions of pure hatred and ignorance.”

But this ultimate final insult by ISIL/ISIS is not the only hardship Saint Elijah Monastery has faced. 

During the 2003 Iraqi conflict, Iraqi tank units damaged rooms and reportedly filled the ancient cistern with trash while using it as a latrine. 

In this first video, apparently made during a US forces visit after taking control of the site, viewers can hear a military guide giving touring soldiers from Forward Operating Base Marez a lecture on the significance of the religious site and why it was later fenced off to protect the site against looters and further degradation.  After that, soldiers were only allowed to visit the site when accompanied by military chaplains or designated military guides.


In this first video the speaker talks about not only the Christian iconography but also the damage the site sustained as a result of a US-Iraqi skirmish with the Iraqi Republican Guard during the initial invasion in 2003.  The officer mentions a U.S. Army anti-tank missile fired by the 101st Airborne at an Iraqi tank unit that was stationed in and around the religious site during the military engagement.  

The tow missile, fired by the US modular light infantry division towards a military target, damaged the ancient chapel's wall when the missile blasted the turret off a T-72 Russian tank.  The impact catapulted the turret into the side of the monastery, buckling the historic site's wall and creating many large cracks and fissures.



Other damages however were not directly related to this armed engagement, but instead were opportunistic offences and carelessness when the 101st were themselves garrisoned at the site.

Soldiers attached to the 101st painted their division's 'Screaming Eagle' logo above the chapel's doorway and also white-washed the stone alter and chapel walls, covering what is believed to have been the remnants of 600-year-old murals.  To add insult to injury, 'Chad wuz here' and 'I love Debbie,' were also found scribbled onto other monastery surfaces along with older graffiti in Arabic and bullet holes. 

Some 250 years earlier, the monastery was nearly flattened by a Persian ruler who also ordered the monks living there to be slain.

Prior to its destruction by ISIS/ISIL the site consisted of 27 rooms and included a mihrab, a temple and a cistern.  Experts from the University of Mosul were scheduled to survey the grounds in 2008 but because of the volatility of the political situation at the time, a team of soldiers from current and former U.S. Army Europe engineer units (the 156th) were tasked to carry out the work as part of a mission in July 2008. The data collected was to be used in Army and civilian maps detailing the area of the monastery, as well as archeological excavations and geographic expeditions.

The 156th also created a three-dimensional model of the site based on their survey data to aid scientists studying the possible purpose of crumbling rooms in the monastery.

Perhaps this model will be of use to scholars going forward. 


October 27, 2015

America’s Museum of the Bible - Hobby Lobby Owners Under Federal Investigation for Possibly Trafficked Assyrian and Babylonian Cuneiform Tablets

For years various academics have questioned the collecting and conservation practices of billionaire collector Steve Green, the philanthropist behind the $800 million, eight-story Museum of the Bible.  Slated to open in 2017, the museum will occupy a historically protected warehouse built in 1923 just minutes away from the National Mall and the US Capitol in Washington DC.  But Green's collection raises more questions than it answers.

Where are the thousands of antiquities coming from that have been purchased to supply this expansive museum?   And as a private museum, has the largest evangelical benefactor in the world cut corners in formulating his museum's acquisition policy, forgoing the standards propounded by museum associations and those dictated by international treaties?

Most of the general public are more familiar with the Green family via their landmark case against the US government objecting to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act which required that corporations above a certain size provide medical insurance benefits to their employees, including coverage for certain contraceptive methods.  In approving an exemption as a result of the case, Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, 573 U.S. (2014), the US Supreme Court decided in Hobby Lobby's favour stating that the Affordable Care Act's mandate requiring that for-profit corporations supply their employees with access to contraceptives at no cost to the insured employee could be opted out of by commercial enterprise owners who are opposed to contraceptive coverage based upon their religious beliefs.

GC.MS.000462, a papyrus fragment sold
on eBay in 2012 which has a text from
Galatians 2:2-4, 5-6 in the New Testament
But the Green's success in rulings over contraception has now been overshadowed by a federal investigation into the museum's collection practices regarding antiquities from ancient Assyria and Babylonia, what is now Iraq.

According to the Museum of the Bible website, the Green's purchased their first biblical object in November 2009.   Since that time, their collection has grown to an estimated 40,000 objects including Dead Sea Scroll fragments, biblical papyri, rare biblical texts and manuscripts, cuneiform tablets, Torah scrolls, and rare printed Bibles.   That's 6,666 objects per year or a whopping 18 objects purchased per day. Compare that to the number of employees currently working for the Greens in relation to their new museum and one can surmise that an object's collection history has not been a principle concern among the staff or consultants vetting historic items for inclusion in the museum's collection.

In April of 2014 Italian papyrologist Roberta Mazza, a lecturer in Classics and Ancient History at University of Manchester, pointed out her concerns surrounding a papyri fragment in the Green's collection. Mazza identified a small papyrus codex page containing lines from Galatians 2 in Sahidic Coptic during a visit to the exhibition, Verbum Domini II, organized by the Green Collection in Vatican City, Rome.  As might be expected, the fragment had a less than stellar collection history.

Belonging to the Green Collection, the fragment was first identified back in October 2012 by Dr. Bryce C. Jones, then a PhD student at Concordia University's Department of Religion.  The Galatians 2 papyrus had previously been listed for sale on the online auction site eBay that same year through an irreputable dealer using the name “mixantik”.  “Mixantik”, who also has used the names "ebuyerrrrr" and "Yasasgroup", is/was an Istanbul-based trader with a seemingly inexhaustible supply of ancient Coptic and Greek papyrus fragments from Egypt, all with little or no provenance.  This seller was also someone whom academics like Dr. Dorothy King and archaeologist Paul Barford had openly reported for trading contrary to Turkish and International law.

Concerned about the provenance of this piece of papyrus as well as other Green Collection practices, Roberta Mazza asked David Trobisch, the current director of the Museum of the Bible, both publicly and privately for more information on the acquisition circumstances of two specific pieces in the family's collection, GC.MS.000462 (Galatians 2) and P. GC. inv. 105 (the Sappho fragments). 

From the Green's employee she learned that the Galatians 2 Coptic fragment was purchased in 2013 by Steve Green from someone referred to as "a trusted dealer".   Records in the Museum of the Bible/Green Collection archives attest that the papyrus was part of the David M. Robinson collection which was sold at a Christie’s auction in London in November 2011.   

The fact that the auction sale records give no mention of the eBay seller, and conveniently does not contain a photographic record or detailed description of what the 59 packets of papyri fragments contain is suspect to say the least.  This lack of detailed documentation on auction sales involving antiquities makes it difficult to ascertain if any given object's origin is either licit or illicit.  This easy loophole leaves the door open for both buyers and sellers to slide suspect objects into the stream of international commerce undetected.  In a nutshell this method may be used to effectively launders smuggled cultural contraband and give an illegitimate object a plausibly legitimate collection history. 

Speeding forward to today, The Daily Beast has reported that the Greens have been under federal investigation for the illicit importation of cultural heritage from Iraq over import irregularities related to 200 to 300 clay cuneiform tablets seized by U.S. Customs agents in Memphis on their way to Oklahoma City from Israel.  The jointly-written article was written by Biblical scholars Joel Baden, professor of Hebrew Bible at Yale University and Candida Moss, professor of New Testament and early Christianity at the University of Notre Dame.

Cary Summers, president of the Museum of the Bible, spoke with Daily Beast reporters exclusively on Monday and stated that a federal investigation was ongoing and that “There was a shipment and it had improper paperwork—incomplete paperwork that was attached to it.” 

In 2008, the U.S. imposed an emergency import restriction on any archaeological and ethnological materials defined as "cultural property of Iraq. This import restriction was imposed to protect items of archaeological, historical, cultural, rare scientific or religious importance at risk of trafficking as the result of unrest in the country.  This import restriction continues additional restrictions already in effect continuously since August 6, 1990.

The selling of ancient Iraqi artifacts is absolutely prohibited under UN resolution 1483 from 2003, as you may find in paragraph 7 of the link here. 

A source familiar with the Hobby Lobby investigation told reporters at the Daily Beast that the cuneiform tablets were described as samples of “hand-crafted clay tiles” on their FedEx shipping label and were valued at under $300.   If true, this seems less like an simple oversight on the part of the shipper and more like direct falsification, not just of these objects' value but of their historic significance and origin as its doubtful that cuneiform tablets will be showing up in the Wall Decor section of Hobby Lobby anytime soon. 

American imports of art, collections and collectors' pieces, and antiques from Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria increased sharply between 2011 and 2013. Is a pattern developing?  Is this how heritage artifacts from source countries plagued by conflict are being folded into legitimate museum and private collections?

David Trobisch has stated that the Green Collection has one of the largest cuneiform tablet collections in the country.

In selecting antiquities, individual collectors and museums have choices. They can choose to focus exclusively on the historic, aesthetic and economic benefits of their acquisitions in formulating their collections or they can add ethical and moral criteria to their purchase considerations and not purchase conflict or blood antiquities.

By Lynda Albertson 

Excerpt from ICOM Code of Ethics for Museums
©2013


September 30, 2015

Highlights from “Conflict Antiquities: Forging a Public/Private Response to Save Iraq and Syria's Endangered Cultural Heritage”


In an awareness raising initiative to highlight the ongoing upheaval and destruction of cultural heritage in Iraq and Syria, the Metropolitan Museum and the US State Department jointly held an event yesterday titled, “Conflict Antiquities: Forging a Public/Private Response to Save Iraq and Syria's Endangered Cultural Heritage” in New York City.

Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken highlighted one example of a looted and not destroyed antiquity that is known to have passed through the hands of ISIS operatives.  The object, a 9th century B.C.E: ivory plaque, decorated with a procession of Assyrian officials and foreign tributaries was excavated at the ancient Assyrian capital of Nimrud by a team from the British Museum in 1989.  The plaque was recovered by U.S. special operations forces during a tactical raid that killed a key ISIS commander, identified by his nom de guerre Abu Sayyaf, last May in al-Omar in eastern Syria.

This ancient object is known to have been looted from the Mosul Museum (Iraq) and underscores what many following illicit antiquities trafficking have already concluded, that the Islamic State not only destroys objects it find religiously offensive or useful for its public propaganda but also has been known to plunder antiquities for some level of financial gain or as war booty when opportunity knocks. 

Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Andrew Keller added that "newly declassified evidence" seized when American Delta Force commandos took out Abu Sayyaf and twelve other Islamic State of Iraq and Syria fighters included receipts collecting taxes from looters as well as written edicts that threatened punishment for those caught looting antiquities without formal Islamic State permission. 

While some of this information appears to be newly declassified, conflict antiquities archaeologist Dr. Sam Hardy released a lengthy analysis of the heritage hoard seized during the Abu Sayyaf raid when details of the cache were released by the State Department in July 2015.  That analysis has been available for two months and can be reviewed here.  

Robert A. Hartung, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Diplomatic Affairs announced a new initiative within their "Rewards for Justice" program,  an incentive established by the 1984 Act to Combat International Terrorism, Public Law 98-533.   The program is administered by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security and announced yesterday that they are set to 


Hartuung emphasized that the Rewards for Justice incentive is not a buyback program, but reward for help in identifying and catching smugglers linked to ISIS.  At present this reward appears to be restricted solely to the Islamic State and does not appear to be not available for information leading to the disruption of the sale of illicit antiquities by other armed groups or other non political traffickers profiting from the absence of controls during the ongoing war.

Another panel discussion highlighted the work of the US government-sponsored organisation currently tasked with ground-based observations of cultural heritage incidents in Syria and Iraq. Michael Danti, from the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR), who’s group has just been allocated a second tranche of federal funding totalling $900,000 in an extension to their previous $600,000 one-year cooperative agreement with the U.S. Department of State spoke on his organization's work continues to document the current condition of cultural heritage sites in Syria and portions of Iraq.   While useful in its own right, ASOR's federally-funded initiative often draws upon the research and analysis of other conflict antiquities researchers, some of whom consistently work below the funding radar, within this sector of expertise on a voluntary basis and without the benefit of funding from governmental or academic bodies. 

Wolfgang Weber, ‎Head of Global Regulatory Policy at eBay, spoke about the due diligence of the web-based auction powerhouse that handles 800 million online auctions a year.  Sales of illicit objects online are a known and ongoing problem where illicit antiquities are concerned and attempts to prevent such illegal activity via large auction sites such as eBay are a work in progress.  Judging from their ability to monitor other areas of illicit activity, many believe that eBay's efforts in policing their online marketplace have largely been ineffective or fallen short of desirable outcomes. 

Weber's presence on the panel underscores that the internet is being harnessed to provide valuable tools for traffickers, who exploit weaknesses in online marketplaces, making the illicit trafficking of cultural property faster, easier and ever more difficult for authorities to fight.

During his presentation Weber stated that his team's task is to identify illegal items & remove them from the online marketplace but he added that eBay does not have the capacity to check individual items, only their sales conduit.  This means that the auction site's contribution to stopping illegal sales is limited to preventing sellers from listing items of concern or in some cases removing listings before a sale can be made.  

eBay relies heavily on key word searches and external reports by individuals who inform the company when an object has been identified which is of dubious origin or legality.  Private citizens and researchers connected to small NGOs are hampered from stopping the online trafficking of items as they can only flag up what’s known to be illegal or looks that way to eBay. Those monitoring the online auction site cannot procure hard evidence by buying the actual contraband as they would then be in violation of national and international laws and treaties themselves. 

Lev Kubiak, ICE Assistant Director for International Operations spoke on US Immigration and Customs Enforcements roll in cultural property, art and antiquities investigations highlighting their 
"Operation Mummy’s Curse,” a five-year investigation carried out by ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) that targeting an international criminal network that illegally smuggled and imported more than 7,000 cultural items from around the world and resulted in at least two convictions. 

Sharon Cott, Senior Vice President, Secretary & General Counsel at the Metropolitan Museum, spoke in support of AAMD member museums who apply ethical principles to safeguard against purchasing blood antiquities and to the roll of museums should play as safe havens for objects during times of unrest. 

Dr. Markus Hilgert, a professor of ancient Near-Eastern studies and Director of the Vorderasiatisches Museum im Pergamonmuseum - Staatliche Museen zu Berlin spoke about his newly funded trans-disciplinary research project on the illicit trade, ILLICID, with partners in customs and law enforcement, the German Federal Foreign Office, Federal Commissioner for Culture and Media, German Commission for UNESCO and ICOM. The ILLICID project is financed via the German Federal Ministry for Education.

Hilgert stressed the need to identify and develop criminological methods for in-depth analysis of illicit trafficking, stressing the need for more information on object types, turnover, networks, and various modus operandi.  He further underscored the need to adequately assess the various dimensions of money laundering and terrorist financing that may be being derived from heritage trafficking.  In conclusion he emphasized that trafficking is the number one threat to the world's cultural patrimony - more than destruction. 

ARCA would like to thank all those who were present in the room and who live-tweeted the conference and took detailed notes allowing those of us in Europe to listen in, even if it was way past our bedtimes.

A list of those folks who lent a hand are:
@cwjones89
@vagabondslog
@keridouglas
@AWOL_tweets
@mokersel
@adreinhard
@mokersel
@HeritageAtState
@ChasingAphrodit
@metmuseum
@jstpwalsh
@LarryCoben
@InventorLogan

There was a lot of ground covered and more still that needs to be covered.

by Lynda Albertson