The Colonial Powers Should Have Plundered More Antiquities

Entrusting the treasures of Middle Eastern civilization to the Arab people is turning out to have been a criminal mistake, argues Benny Ziffer.

Headshot of Haaretz columnist and literary supplement editor Benny Ziffer, who is artistic director of the poetry festival to be held in Metula.
Benny Ziffer
The ancient Syrian city Palmyra, whose antiquities have been damaged by ISIS.Credit: AFP
Headshot of Haaretz columnist and literary supplement editor Benny Ziffer, who is artistic director of the poetry festival to be held in Metula.
Benny Ziffer

Shlomo Moussaieff, a Jerusalem-born magnate and a Jew with deep national feelings, died on Monday night. Moussaieff devoted all his energies to collecting objects relating to the archaeology of the ancient Near East and the Land of Israel. Even though he did not have a university education, he had an intuitive feeling for archaeology.

Once in his possession, every find, be it a Jewish clay oil lamp from Israel, or part of the wall of an Assyrian palace that was smuggled out of Iraq, became like a lost child who returned home. To visit his homes in London and in Herzliya was to step into a time machine. And, contrary to the myths about collectors, he did not want to freeze the items in a glass case; just the opposite: He encouraged scholars to publish articles about them and thereby relocate them within history.

Because of the laws that prohibit or at least limit commerce in antiquities, and certainly their theft, the higher-education establishment treated him with a mixture of suspicion and admiration. In at least one case he got into trouble when he tried to import part of a wall from a palace of the Assyrian kings that had been acquired by theft in Iraq. He wanted that particular item to be in Israel, but on that occasion he failed.

In general, Moussaieff scoffed at convention. He was the friend of extreme right-wingers, and of former criminals. In his living room, one encountered the last people in the world that an average person would expect to find in the home of a person of his standing. And he had strong views – always right-wing – about what this country should look like in terms of Palestinians.

What’s sad about all this is how perspicacious Moussaieff was, even if many believed that he encouraged the theft of antiquities from Arab countries. Because now they are eating their hats, all those self-righteous types who demand the return of the Parthenon sculptures from the British Museum to Greece, and of the Luxor Obelisk from the Place de la Concorde to Egypt.

Today everyone with eyes in his head sees – across the whole region that’s considered the cradle of world civilization, namely the Fertile Crescent, from Iraq to Syria – that it’s unfortunate that more wasn’t stolen. In short, that the colonial powers did not plunder additional antiquities and bring them to Europe.

In other words, and very painful words they are: Entrusting the treasures of Middle Eastern civilization to the Arab people is turning out to have been a criminal mistake. It worked for a few years, by dint of force. Now, with the removal of the tyrants who concentrated the powers of the state in their hands, including the preservation of antiquities, we are witnessing the daily savaging of world heritage sites.

These acts appear to be carried out by Islamic State, or ISIS – but they are not the only perpetrators. In the civil war raging in Syria, none of the warring parties spared the Old City of Aleppo, which, according to reports, was completely destroyed. What was Aleppo’s sin? And what was the sin of other sites, such as Palmyra, also in Syria, or the palaces of the Assyrian kings in Iraq?

It seems to me that their malicious or incidental destruction shows utter contempt for what’s known as world civilization. It’s the same contempt that occasionally rears its head in different parts of the world, such as in China during the Cultural Revolution, Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge and so forth. And worst of all is the fact that these acts of destruction get a wink of approval from people in the West, who look on in amazement at the barbarism. They supposedly understand the volcanic rage and tacitly agree that this is the price to be paid for shedding years of colonial oppression.

This forgiving attitude vis-a-vis barbarism is the most depressing outcome of the present situation. Also depressing and worrying is the dogmatism that prevents the West from grasping that we must welcome the fact that the museums in its capitals are filled with objects that were stolen from the Middle East. And, as in the case of raising children, in which the good parent is the one who cultivates the child and not necessarily the person who gave birth to him biologically – so too in the field known as the “antiquities theft.” Those who appreciate and love the objects that constitute the world cultural heritage deserve to be called their parent, not those in whose country the objects happen to be found.

For the same reason – that now is the time to save culture and not to engage in self-righteous argumentation – I have nothing against the right-wing NGOs that provide support for archaeological digs in Israel intended to prove the antecedence of our hold in the land. Would it be better the other way around?

The very fact that there are still people and organizations in this torn region called the Middle East who think that archaeology is important – no matter for what aim – is far to be preferred over its being scorned. If only it were the same in Iraq and Syria: that someone would fund and cultivate archaeology for national reasons.

So, together with a prayer for the ascent of the soul of a person who saved thousands if not tens of thousands of precious objects of Near Eastern art from the ravages of the barbarism of extremist Islam, I also utter a prayer for the souls of the colonialists who unfortunately did not steal more and plunder more and empty out the Middle East of its treasures, because the people who are considered the lawful inheritors of those treasures are not worthy of being their owners.