Archaeology in the Middle East

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Author: Reeva S. Simon
Editor: Philip Mattar
Date: 2004
Encyclopedia of the Modern Middle East and North Africa
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 6
Content Level: (Level 5)

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ARCHAEOLOGY IN THE MIDDLE EAST

Serious archaeological inquiry in the Middle East began during the Renaissance when Europeans became interested in their Christian and classical roots.

The key sources for the Middle East's archaeological past, the Bible and Homer's Iliad, inspired gentlemen scholars, travelers, and, later, members of the various European diplomatic missions, to discover sites and decipher scripts that launched the newly developing discipline of archaeology. Their interest was the ancient world—the Islamic period was deemed too recent and not particularly relevant to European historical interests. Europeans collected statues, pottery, and tablets for the sake of knowledge and the glory of imperialism and shipped them back to European metropoles, often without permission of local authorities.

The Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries

Napoléon Bonaparte's Egyptian expedition (1798–1801) initiated the scramble for the acquisition of antiquities from the Middle East. The discovery of the trilingual Rosetta Stone enabled Jean-François Champollion to decipher ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. French scholars continued to remain heavily involved in Egyptology on Egyptian soil until 1952. Auguste Mariette, dispatched to Egypt by the Louvre to collect papyri, received permission from Khedive Ismaʿil ibn Ibrahim to establish the Egyptian Antiquities Service (1858) and the Egyptian Museum in Cairo in 1863. His successor, Gaston Maspéro, encouraged excavation by other foreign scholars. The British established the Egyptian Exploration Fund and sent Flinders Petrie (1853–1942), who set new standards for exact recording, publishing, and the study of pottery, and founded the British School of Archaeology in Egypt.

Napoléon's short sojourn in Palestine sparked new interest in the land of the Bible, which, until then, was solely the destination of religious pilgrims. Travelers found significant sites. Johann Ludwig Burckhardt (1784–1817) located Petra, and Lady Hester Stanhope (1776–1831) visited Palmyra. The field of biblical archaeology was inaugurated by the work of Edward Robinson (1858–1931). Robinson was followed by groups of international sponsors: the American Oriental Society; the American Palestine Oriental Society; the British Palestine Exploration Fund, which began work on Jerusalem in 1867; the German Society for the Exploration of Palestine (Deutscher Palästina-Verein); the École Biblique; and the Deutsche Orient Gesellschaft, which excavated Megiddo from 1901 to 1905. Maps and surveys of Jerusalem and other sections of the Holy Land were produced during the formative period in Page 276  |  Top of Article
Wall painting from the tomb of Queen Nefertari in Egypt. Discovered in 1904, the tomb features many beautifully colored wall paintings that were restored in 1994 by the Egyptian Antiquities Organization and the Getty Conservation Institute. Admission to the tomb, which lies in Luxor's Valley of the Queens, is limited to 150 persons per day to aid in the preservation of the structure. © CORBIS. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION. Wall painting from the tomb of Queen Nefertari in Egypt. Discovered in 1904, the tomb features many beautifully colored wall paintings that were restored in 1994 by the Egyptian Antiquities Organization and the Getty Conservation Institute. Admission to the tomb, which lies in Luxor's Valley of the Queens, is limited to 150 persons per day to aid in the preservation of the structure. © CORBIS. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION. biblical archaeology. Intense interest in the area by U.S. Protestant groups led to the establishment of various Catholic and Russian (Eastern) Orthodox institutions. Jewish archaeological work began with the formation of the Jewish Palestine Exploration Society shortly before World War I.

In Mesopotamia (Iraq) and Persia (Iran), the British, Germans, and French achieved the major breakthroughs. The British resident of the East India Company in Baghdad, Claudius James Rich (1787–1820), surveyed Babylon and published his findings in 1818. In the 1840s Paul Emile Botta (1802–1870), the French consular agent at Mosul, worked at Assyrian Nineveh, while Austen Henry Layard (1817–1894) excavated ancient Nimrud, and the French explored areas around Basra. Most of the work was sponsored by the British Museum and ceased during the Crimean War, resuming in the 1870s.

Georg Friedrich Grotefend (1775–1853) and Sir Henry Creswicke Rawlinson (1810–1895) worked on Old Persian and deciphered cuneiform. This could not have been accomplished without the transcriptions of Karsten Niebuhr (1733–1815) at Persepolis and Rawlinson's own painstaking copy of the inscriptions on the Behistun Rock. Cracking the cuneiform code expanded human history to pre-biblical eras, and enabled Sir Leonard Woolley (1880–1960) to work on Abraham's Ur and the preAkkadian Sumerians. U.S. interest in Mesopotamia was fostered by the American Oriental Society, which focused on Assyria and Babylonia in addition to its goal of cultivating learning in the "Asiatic, African, and Polynesian languages."

The secular underpinnings of modern archaeology, namely that human existence predated the biblical Flood, the theory of evolution, and the categorization of human existence into the Stone, Bronze, and Iron Ages, affected the secularly oriented countries of the Middle East less than the Islamic monarchies. For the religious Muslim, the period before Islam, the jahiliyya, was the age of ignorance, and they had no interest in it. Egyptians, both Copts and Muslims, became interested in Egypt's pre-Islamic past very early. Rifaʿa al-Rafi al-Tahtawi, intrigued by the work on the Rosetta Stone, published a history of Egypt from the Pharoanic period and encouraged Egyptians to become involved in archaeology. Ahmad Kamal (1851–1923) established Egyptology for the Egyptians.


The Twentieth Century

Excavations in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Palestine, were directed by Europeans. The discoveries at Byblos, Ras Shamra (Ugarit, 1929), Tall al-Hariri (Mari) in Syria, and Ebla revealed the link between ancient Semitic cultures in the Bronze Age. As a result, history was worked into pan-Arab ideology and local nationalisms. Pan-Arabism stressed the unity of pre-Islamic Semites, and Maronites in LebanonPage 277  |  Top of Article and the Syrian Social Nationalist Party in Syria looked to their Phoenician and Canaanite forbears. The governments of North African countries became interested in Carthaginians and the Romans who settled along the southern coast of the Mediterranean.


As Middle Eastern countries achieved independence or asserted their national identities, they began to control the study of their own pasts and to direct their own archaeological excavations. By 1936, Iraq, newly independent, placed legal restrictions on foreign excavations and in 1941, appointed Tahir Baqir curator of the Iraqi National Museum in Baghdad and editor of Sumer (founded in 1945), which was devoted to investigating the Mesopotamian past. This study was continued under the Baʿth Party. Saddam Hussein, president of Iraq, used archaeology to stress the unity of ancient Mesopotamia in a country beset by ethnic and religious strife and, in pan-Arab terms, to emphasize Iraq's glorious Semitic past as opposed to Iran's later development. In spite of almost constant war since 1980, Saddam renovated the National Museum, designated the State Organization for Antiquities and Heritage to control all excavations, renovations, and tours to sites, and began rebuilding Babylon, completing the Ishtar Gate, amphitheater, ziggurat, and Ishtar Temple, in order to stress the city's special significance in Mesopotamian history.


Until the early 1960s, archaeology in Iran was dominated by the French, who began to excavate at Susa in the nineteenth century. In 1961 the government established a department of archaeological services and the Iran Bastan Museum in Tehran. By then, under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Iran's Persian past was stressed almost to the exclusion of its Islamic significance. The Islamic religious population was angered by the intensive linguistic study, additional excavations at Siyalk, Tepe Yahya, and Marlik, and the lauding of the Pahlavis as successors to a long line of Persian dynasties whose capital at Persepolis was used as the setting for the 2,500th anniversary party of ancient Persian rule. Since the overthrow of the shah in 1979 and the establishment of a theocratic regime in Iran, there has been little concern with the country's pre-Islamic roots.


Nestled in the mountains of Jordan lie the ruins of Petra (known in the Bible as Sela), a fortress city carved out of high sandstone cliffs that once controlled the main commercial routes in the region. The ruins were rediscovered in 1812 by the Europeans, but were not fully surveyed and classified until the beginning of the twentieth century. © JOSE FUSTE RAGA/CORBIS. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION. Nestled in the mountains of Jordan lie the ruins of Petra (known in the Bible as Sela), a fortress city carved out of high sandstone cliffs that once controlled the main commercial routes in the region. The ruins were rediscovered in 1812 by the Europeans, but were not fully surveyed and classified until the beginning of the twentieth century. © JOSE FUSTE RAGA/CORBIS. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION.

Biblical archaeological research continued during the British mandate for Palestine, on both sides of the Jordan River. William Foxwell Albright's work on ancient Moab in Transjordan (Jordan) and in the Dead Sea area complemented Kathleen Kenyon's excavations at Jericho. The Jewish Palestine Exploration Society, founded in 1914 by Nahum Slouschz, undertook its first excavations at Hammath-Tiberias in 1921, and by 1928, the archaeology department at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem was headed by noted Jewish scholar E. L. Sukenik. Noted Palestinian Arab archaeologists during the mandate included Tawfiq Canaan, Dmitri Baramki, and Stephen Hanna Stephan. The Rockefeller Museum (later called the Palestinian Archaeological Museum), situated in what became in Israeli-occupied East Jerusalem after 1967, became a major repository for biblical artifacts.

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A sixth-century wall relief in ancient Persia's capital, Persepolis, depicts figures climbing a stone staircase with offerings to the king. Excavation and documentation at Persepolis began in earnest in the 1930s. © CORBIS. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION. A sixth-century wall relief in ancient Persia's capital, Persepolis, depicts figures climbing a stone staircase with offerings to the king. Excavation and documentation at Persepolis began in earnest in the 1930s. © CORBIS. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION.

Archaeology in Israel remains focused on religious history, primarily of the Jewish and early Christian periods. Politically, excavations at biblical sites of the Megiddo of King Solomon, patriarchal Tel-Sheva at Beersheba, and at Davidic and Second Temple Jerusalem serve to authenticate Zionist claims to the land. Yigael Yadin's finds at Masada proved the existence of the heroic Jew—a counterfoil to the Holocaust victim—and provided physical evidence for the histories of Jewish Roman historian Josephus Flavius. The Dead Sea Scrolls, housed in the Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum, focus on the origins of Christianity.

Heinrich Schliemann's excavations at Hissarlik (thought to be Troy) and Hugo Winckler's identification of the Hittite capital Hattusas at Bogazköy in 1905 sparked interest in the multicultural antecedents of Anatolia, which only recently was inhabited by the Turks. Saudi Arabia had explored early sites on the pilgrimage routes to the Hijaz, and in the late 1960s become interested in the significance of the Arabian peninsula in the development of human civilization. In the mid-1970s the Saudi government sponsored surveys of pre-Islamic sites in the peninsula and scholarly work on the Nabateans and early Semitic peoples. Kuwait, Oman, and some of the United Arab Emirates began collecting Islamic antiquities and opened museums, such as the Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyya in Kuwait.

Politics of Archaeology in the Middle East

Archaeological sites and finds have provoked controversy in the Middle East. Whereas governments and political movements in the region have used archaeology and archaeological artifacts to bolster their ideological claims, terrorists have targeted archaeological and cultural sites, sometimes in an effort to kill Western tourists and disrupt tourism. In November 1997 seventy-one people died in an attack on tourists at the Luxor temple site in Egypt. Islamic militants are assumed to have been the culprits. In late 1999 Jordanian officials uncovered a plot by the al-Qaʿida network to attack tourists at several biblical sites in the country.

The theft and/or destruction of archaeological artifacts and cultural heritage items, particularly during wartime, also has created political storms in the Middle East and Southwest Asia. The Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907 and the Washington Pact of 1935 deal with the necessity of belligerent powers to protect one another's cultural property. The Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict (14 May 1954; entered in effect 7 August 1956) also forbids the removal of cultural artifacts by an occupying power. The Arab–Israel conflict has been particularly fraught with violations of these policies. Both Israeli and Jordanian authorities failed to prevent the desecration or destruction of religious sites and cemeteries in Jerusalem (and elsewhere) after the first Arab–Israel War in 1948. After Israel's occupation of the West Bank, including the eastern half of Jerusalem, in June 1967, Israeli archaeologists carried out numerous digs in the territory; Palestinians claimed they were pillaging their cultural artifacts. So sensitive has the issue of ownership of these items become that the Israeli–Palestinian peace process that began in 1993 early on addressed continued Israeli digs in certain areas. The Department of Antiquities of the Palestinian Authority has expressed its desire to regain items excavated from the West Bank by the Israelis, if and when a final peace treaty is signed. Palestinians also have expressed fears that digs in Jerusalem could compromisePage 279  |  Top of Article the structural integrity of important Islamic shrines nearby. For example, Israel's opening of an ancient tunnel in the city near al-Haram alSharif prompted disturbances in September 1996. Archaeological digs have also provoked violent confrontations among Jews in Israel, particularly in Jerusalem, where religious Jews have battled Israeli police over archaeological digs in areas deemed by some to be ancient Jewish cemeteries. Finally, some have complained that Israeli and Western archaeo-logical activity has ignored the Islamic and Ottoman periods in favor of Biblical excavations.

One related issue rose to the international level. When Israel took over the Rockefeller Museum in East Jerusalem in 1967, the museum and its artifacts were incorporated into the Israeli Department of Antiquities and administered by the Israel Museum. Israel confiscated the Rockefeller Museum on the grounds that it was the property of the conquered Jordanian government (Jordan nationalized the museum in November 1966). When the Israel Museum tried to include some items from the Rockefeller Museum in a 1985 exhibition in the United States titled "Treasures from the Holy Land: Ancient Art from the Israel Museum," the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York challenged Israel's acquisition of some of the items. The United States's Smithsonian Institution then agreed to host the exhibit the following year, but objected to the inclusion of eleven artifacts from the Rockefeller Museum. Israel refused to change the exhibition, which consequently was canceled.

Other examples of the theft of cultural property or destruction of archaeological sites abound. In October 2000 during the al-Aqsa Intifada, Palestinians sacked Joseph's Tomb, the reputed tomb of the biblical figure Joseph, in the West Bank city of Nablus, completely destroying the shrine that was venerated by Jews. Following Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in August 1991, Iraqi museum officials carted away the contents of the Kuwait National Museum and Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyya to Baghdad. The collections were returned after the Gulf War by the United Nations Return of Property (UNRP) agency, although fifty-nine valuable items were missing. During the U.S. invasion of Iraq in Spring 2003 there was an international furor when Iraqi museums were looted after the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime. As the occupying power, the United States was responsible for securing these storehouses of archaeological and cultural treasures dating back 5,000 years, but in April 2003 the National Museum in Baghdad was looted by common pilferers and professional art thieves who stole nearly 15,000 artifacts. Although some precious objects had been hidden by museum employees and were recovered, more than 10,000 items were still missing by September 2003. These included the world's oldest example of representational sculpture, the Sumerian Warka Mask (3500 B.C.E.), and the Akkadian Bassetki Statue (2300 B.C.E.). Not all examples of destruction or theft occurred during wartime. In March 2001 the Taliban regime in Afghanistan destroyed 1,500-year-old statues of the Buddha in its own city of Bamyan because they were deemed idols that were offensive to Islam.

Despite such setbacks, virtually every country in the Middle East has established its own department of antiquities, where local employees either undertake or supervise foreign work, and they have enacted strict legislation against the export of national historical treasures. Countries have also worked with international agencies to save cherished monuments, including in Iraq, where Interpol tracked down some of the items looted from the National Museum in Baghdad. By November 2003 more than 3,400 items from the museum had been recovered, including the Warka Mask and the Bassetki Statue.

Bibliography

Glock, Albert. "Archaeology." In Encyclopedia of the Palestinians, edited by Philip Mattar. New York: Facts On File, 2000.

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Lewis, Bernard. History: Remembered, Recovered, Invented. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1971.

Reid, Donald M. "Egyptology: The Decolonization of a Profession?" Journal of the American Oriental Society 105 (1985): 233–246.

Silberman, Neil Asher. Between Past and Present. New York: Henry Holt, 1989.

REEVA S. SIMON

UPDATED BY MICHAEL R. FISCHBACH

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3424600308