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Between Hobby Lobby and ISIS: The Battle for Iraq's Antiquities

Mandel Ngan / Getty Images

Hobby Lobby, big-box purveyor of cut-rate craft supplies and idiosyncratic selections of register candy, last made national headlines for challenging the federal government on the Affordable Care Act's contraception mandate. But Hobby Lobby’s owners, the Oklahoma-based Green family, have now set their sights on greater things. No longer content to traffic purely in yarn, felt, or health care policy, the Greens have begun trafficking in potentially looted antiquities plucked from conflict zones in the Middle East.

This week Candida Moss and Joel Baden—professors at Notre Dame and Yale Divinity School, respectively—reported that federal investigators are looking into a shipment of more than 200 ancient clay tablets procured by the Greens from Iraq via Israel. The feds intercepted the tablets in Memphis in 2011, en route to Hobby Lobby’s Oklahoma headquarters. Thousands of years old, the tablets are inscribed with cuneiform, an ancient script consisting of wedge-shaped characters thought to be among the earliest forms of writing. The tablets were evidently destined for the Greens’ forthcoming Museum of the Bible, projected to open in Washington, D.C., in 2017.

Both federal and international laws prohibit the plunder of antiquities from conflict zones, as well as the ruins of important historical sites. At the end of last September, the International Criminal Court began trial proceedings against militants accused of destroying cultural heritage sites in Mali in 2012, pursuant to several strictures placed on the destruction and/or looting of historical sites by past Hague conventions. Federally, the Greens could be guilty of customs fraud, misrepresenting the value and origin of the illicitly imported tablets.

Yet I confess that when I initially read about the federal government’s intervention, I was relieved. Even if the Greens wind up permanently surrendering them to government officials, I reasoned, it would be better than leaving such priceless artifacts in Iraq, where countless historical objects have already been destroyed by ISIS’s ruthless campaign against reminders of the region’s supposedly idolatrous past. Since taking over large swaths of Iraq and Syria, ISIS has destroyed mosques, churches, tombs, shrines, ancient monuments, and other historical sites. The group's campaign of destruction also extends to human life. Last August, militants in the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra executed Khaled al-Assad, a scholar of antiquities, for refusing to reveal where some of the city’s artifacts had been hidden for safekeeping. 

So any ancient artifacts in Iraq and Syria are currently compromised. For those of us who do not want to see Middle Eastern Christianity erased from the region and its history (and other embattled religious minorities and their respective histories), the preservation of cultural objects and sites is therefore extremely important.

And yet, the Greens’ conservation strategy might inflict more damage than it prevents.

The sale of looted artifacts likely benefits ISIS, which appears to be smuggling portable artifacts out of the region as a means of raising income. In 2014, UNESCO published a special edition of its World Heritage publication concerning Iraq’s threatened treasures, warning that the looting of historical objects is used by ISIS to finance acts of terrorism. Though it isn’t clear how the Greens purchased their tablets, Moss and Baden emphasized in an email to the New Republic that “every purchase of unprovenanced artifacts reinforces the market for illicit antiquities and emboldens those engaged in looting,” adding that “the risks of inadvertently financing an illegal and violent market are just too high to justify the acquisition of improperly documented material.”

The illegal transportation of delicate artifacts can also damage them. As mass protests broke out in Egypt in 2011, looters stormed the Egyptian Museum in Cairo along with nearby excavation warehouses, plundering mummified corpses, statues, ceremonial objects, and other treasures, many of which were left in pieces after the raid. Agents without experience in conservation are also much less likely to transport ancient materials safely, even if their final destination is a well-run museum.

And there’s value to keeping objects with cultural meaning in their areas of origin. Pamela Hatchfield, president of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works, explained in an email to the New Republic that “our history and our understanding of it is based on our understanding of physical objects in their original context. ... In their original context, [historical sites and objects] represent the unique cultural identity of the region in which they are found. They are the actual record, not anyone's interpretation of it.” What makes the destruction of ancient artifacts such a natural companion to the destruction of particular ethnic groups is that both actions aim to deny a part of a region’s identity. Protecting cultural heritage sites and objects in their context subverts, in a profound way, the effort to erase targeted groups and histories from those regions.

Hatchfield acknowledged that protecting historical artifacts in conflict zones is “a very big and complicated question,” with peace efforts being a major part of the solution. In the meantime, though, UNESCO has recently approved a “cultural Blue Helmet” program, in which United Nations peacekeepers will be dispatched to protect threatened cultural sites from militant groups. If all goes according to plan, this will mean increased on-the-ground protection for compromised sites and objects.

Heritage sites and artifacts will not be entirely safe until ISIS (and other similar militant groups—the Taliban destroyed world-famous ancient Buddhist sculptures in Afghanistan in 2001, for instance) is permanently neutralized. But, harrowing as it is, the best strategy to protect the region’s endangered history seems to be to lend support to local efforts rather than to smuggle unprovenanced objects into other countries, where they may or may not ever be reunited with the people and places that form their context.