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German man with ancient Syrian artifacts under investigation

February 21, 2024

Police in southern Germany are investigating a man over a suspicious collection of ancient Middle Eastern artifacts that were likely stolen from a Syrian museum in 2015, including a cuneiform tablet.

An ancient cuneiform tablet which was stolen from a museum in Syria in 2015 has resurfaced in southern Germany
An ancient cuneiform tablet which was stolen from a museum in Syria in 2015 has resurfaced in southern GermanyImage: LKA BW

German police said on Wednesday that they were investigating a man in possession of a suspicious collection of artifacts dating back to ancient Syria — including a millennia-old cuneiform tablet.

Investigators in the southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg believe that the tablet, which is inscribed with one of the earliest known writing systems from 2,350-2,250 B.C., dates back to the ancient Kingdom of Ebla, and may have been stolen from a museum in Idlib, Syria.

The man claimed to have acquired the tablet from an old Bavarian collection as an investment and for possible resale, but investigators found this claim to be false.

"Investigations revealed that the artifact had, in fact, probably been illegally imported into Germany ... after being stolen from the museum in Idlib in Syria in 2015," investigators said.

Also in the man's collection in the city of Heilbronn were a collection of "ushabti" figurines — small sandstone statues buried in the tombs of pharaohs and other important people — and a second cuneiform tablet, all of which have been seized by police.

Idlib is one of comparatively few cities and areas in Syria that President Bashar al-Assad's government still does not control, with the government having made considerable gains in recent years. For the most part, a group aligned with Syria's so-called opposition govenmment, classified by Assad's regime as "terrorist," called Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, controls the city.

Ancient Syrian artifacts: another victim of civil war

Syria's extraordinary archaeological heritage has been badly affected by fighting in the country since a civil war broke out in 2011.

In a country where corruption and trafficking of archaeological artifacts and treasures were already a chronic problem, power vacuums or rebel or terrorist control of some areas have led to an explosion of looting and illicit excavations.

The so-called Islamic State (IS) is believed to have uncovered and then destroyed a stash of cuneiform tablets and statues when it captured Tal Ajaja, one of Syria's most important Assyrian-era sites. They claimed to deem such items "blasphemous." 

Saving Syria’s cultural heritage

Germany saw a large influx of Syrian refugees in 2015-16, with hundreds of thousands arriving in the country.

mf/msh (AFP)

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