Text size:

  • Small
  • Normal
  • Large

Safeguarding the region's antiquities

Many Middle Eastern and North African antiquities have fallen prey to the region's recent conflicts. But some steps can be taken to stop this slow-motion disaster.

Throughout history, mighty conquerors and hungry peasants alike have plundered palaces, tombs and museums, carrying off priceless artefacts. Some are melted down, some go to prestigious museums, some vanish into the chaos of combat and some end up in the secret hoards of the unscrupulous rich.

The Middle East and North Africa in particular have lost countless antiquities, from Babylon's enormous Ishtar Gate - parts of it are in museums in at least six countries - to countless tiny artefacts smuggled away individually or wholesale. Just this week, The National reported that items looted during Libya's civil war have turned up at Christie's auction house, which duly alerted authorities.

The old regimes of the Arab uprising states, for all their faults, often protected museums and other patrimonial assets. But civil war, lawlessness and fundamentalism have seen antiquities looted, in a continuing slow-motion tragedy: reports this month tell of Syrian rebels at the Lebanese border, trading artefacts taken from museums for weapons.

In September, the burning of Aleppo's medieval souq was yet another tragedy for Syria; last year, the destruction of the Egyptian Scientific Institute saw tens of thousands of historical documents destroyed.

Well-intentioned outsiders can do little to prevent such events. They can, however, help to stop the haemorrhage of artefacts. So can governments, by strongly supporting anti-smuggling efforts.

Many countries deem newly discovered antiquities to be state property. Even a medium-term view of history shows that states can be fleeting, but there is surely a broader interest in keeping items from Arab history, for example, in Arab hands. Regional cooperation, including monitoring of international dealers, could help.

There is also the more symbolic, but less urgent problem of recovering artefacts once looted but now housed in reputable museums. Egypt, for example, has long wanted Germany to return the 3,350-year-old bust of Nefertiti discovered and claimed in 1912 by German archaeologists. Egypt has first claim to it own antiquities - so long as it can place them in secure exhibitions.

In the latest case, Christie's did exactly as it should, as would be expected of a respected auction house. The worry is for those artefacts that fall into less reputable hands.

Back to the top

More articles

Editor's Picks

 Shah Rukh Khan performs at the IPL Gala dinner to open IPL VII at the Emirates Palace hotel in Abu Dhabi.

In pictures: Shah Rukh Khan stars at IPL Gala dinner in Abu Dhabi

The superstar entertainer Shah Rukh Khan on stage last night at a gala dinner to launch the Indian Premier League cricket tournament.

No words can describe this April 17, your captions will

Have a catchy caption for this picture. Share it with us and we might publish it and reward you.

 When this 1856 British Guiana One-Cent Magenta stamp goes under the hammer at Sotheby’s in New York on June 17, it is expected to attract a world record bid for a single stamp of up to $20 million (Dh73.4m). Courtesy Sotheby’s

Rare 1856 stamp up for auction at Sotheby’s

This is one of the world’s rarest stamps and when it goes up for auction in June it should fetch $20million. Its history since it was issued in 1856 is fascinating – and includes one murderous chapter, as Jonathan Gornall reports

 This Dh17,000 Miele system can prepare your choice of coffee - from capuccino to espresso - at a touch of a button. Pawan Singh / The National

In pictures: Miele puts art in coffee making

Miele has devoted itself to the art of preparing the black liquid with its beautifully designed coffee machines, living up to its mantra of turning kitchens into cafés.

 Iranian President Hassan Rouhani greets supporters after his arrival in Zahedan, the regional capital of Sistan and Baluchestan province on Tuesday, April 15, 2014. During Mr Rouhani's two-day visit, he will tour several other cities and hold meetings with local scholars and entrepreneurs. Maryam Rahmanian for The National

On the road with Hassan Rouhani

Iran's president is touring some of Iran's most underdeveloped provinces. Foreign correspondent Yeganeh Salehi is traveling with him.

 Amir Khan, during a workout at the Gloves Community Centre on March 24, 2014 in Bolton, England, says his fight will be the real main event in Las Vegas on May 3. Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Amir Khan says bout with Luis Collazo ‘will steal the show’ in Las Vegas on May 3

British-Pakistani boxer Amir Khan says his fight with Luis Collazo will be the main attraction on same fight card led by Floyd Mayweather Jr and Marcos Maidana, writes Omar Al Raisi.


To add your event to The National listings, click here

Get the most from The National