Friday, 24 November 2006

Ancient treasures lure modern thieves

With Israeli, Palestinian authorities busy with other matters, Bedouins rob tombs much as forefathers did

Mountasser, a 7-year-old Bedouin, displays artifacts that he and his siblings found near their West Bank village. Photo by David Blumenfeld, special to the Chronicle

Friday, November 24, 2006
Page A - 18

Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service

Herodion, West Bank -- At least two nights a week, Abu Moussa, the Bedouin leader of Herodion, takes his sleeping bag, tools and a small group of men and heads into the mountains to practice the trade he learned from his father and grandfather before him -- robbing the treasures of ancient tombs.

It's a tradition that goes back centuries, and these days it is considered illegal by both Israeli and Palestinian police. But as the Palestinian economy crumbles in the face of Israeli security restrictions and crippling international sanctions against the Hamas-led government of the Palestinian Authority, ancient treasures buried in the biblical landscape have become a major source of income for many West Bank residents.

"The mountains and valleys in this area are full of caves. All the boys and men in the village search the caves to look for antiquities, and they bring whatever they find to me, because I am the mukhtar, the leader of the village, and I know about all these things," said Abu Moussa, 50, displaying a table covered with treasures, including a 3,000-year-old Canaanite earthenware jug, several oil lamps, decorated bowls, and fistfuls of ancient coins, weights and arrowheads.

"I take everything and I sell it to dealers in Bethlehem and Jerusalem, and we share the proceeds among all the village. This is how we support ourselves and make a living," he said.

The tiny Bedouin village has only 150 inhabitants, who until recently earned a living as shepherds who tended the flocks and sold milk and cheese, or as day laborers in Israel. But since the Palestinian intifada, or uprising, began in September 2000, they have been unable to enter Israel, and the spiraling economic crisis has drastically reduced demand for their dairy products.

"We used to have 700 sheep in the village; now we have only about 100 left. I myself had more than 100 sheep, and now I have only 15. We had to sell them or kill them for food because we have no money," said Abu Moussa, who would not allow his full name to be used.

"Today these treasures are the main income for the village," he said. "The most expensive piece I ever found was a coin from Bar Kochba, the Jewish prince at the time of the Romans. I sold that one for $15,000. But usually even the most expensive items are only worth about $300 or $400, and we might find one or two of them in a month," he said.

Sleeping by day and moving at night to escape the scrutiny of Israeli army patrols and Palestinian antiquities police, Abu Moussa and his fellow villagers move through the mountains and valleys around Wadi Kareitoun, which winds from the spectacular first-century palace of Herodion through the Judean desert to the Dead Sea about 15 miles away.

The barren landscape is perforated with thousands of natural caves, many of them used as burial tombs dating back to the Canaanite period about 3,000 years ago. Some are still sealed. Others were robbed long ago, perhaps by Abu Moussa's ancestors. Many contain the bones of poor hermits and simple shepherds, but others were used to bury wealthy people whose worldly goods accompanied them to the grave.

"Buried along with the bones are all sorts of coins, jugs and jewelry," said Abu Moussa. "The ancient people believed in reincarnation, and they thought that if they buried their possessions in the grave, they would have them to use when they came back to life. There are jugs and bowls and lamps. Sometimes the jugs and other items are full of gold coins.

"Everything has been preserved because the caves were sealed after the burial and the water has never touched it. Only the metal objects have survived in the open fields, because other items have decayed over the centuries," he said. "Many coins were dropped on the ground, and as the rains come, they are washed up to the surface and we can find them."

The Israel Antiquities Authority has been trying for years to stop the activities of scavengers like Abu Moussa, but without success. The removal of archaeological artifacts, valuable or not, from ancient tombs destroys their scientific value and hinders detailed research.

Under Israeli law, antiquities must all be registered and cannot be sold to private collectors. But the law is widely flouted, and vast quantities of ancient treasures are spirited out of the country to collectors abroad willing to pay ever-increasing prices. The Antiquities Authority has a special unit, with police powers, that patrols the areas under Israeli control to catch tomb robbers, and an intelligence network that tries to trace the movement of antiquities dug up from the Holy Land. It also cracks down on dealers suspected of trading in pilfered treasure.

Since the withdrawal of Israel from large areas of the West Bank, the outbreak of the intifada and the building of the separation barrier, Israel has just about given up trying to police desert areas like the one where Abu Moussa operates.

Not just Bedouins are in on the search for antiquities -- impoverished Palestinians, too, take part in the illegal searches. The Palestinian Authority has a special Tourist and Antiquities Police unit, but they were never very vigilant in protecting artifacts, and with the breakdown of Palestinian Authority control under the Hamas government, they are almost completely ineffective.

Abu Moussa is every inch the traditional Bedouin mukhtar. He has two wives and 19 children, and on the belt of his robes he carries a well-greased shabriyeh, a traditional Bedouin dagger with a jewel-encrusted silver handle. He also has a small library of books on ancient coins and antiquities in English, German and Hebrew.

"I have a metal detector; it's 80 years old. My grandfather got it from the British. This is now my profession. I can tell everything. I am an expert -- Byzantine, Roman, Islamic, Canaanite," he said.

On a rocky ledge just below his home, there is a cave whose entrance has been carved into a fine stone doorway. This old tomb has been empty for decades, but in just a few minutes' searching among the rocks outside, Abu Moussa's children pick up more than a dozen items, including a rare Byzantine coin found by 7-year-old Mountasser. They hand the treasure to their father, who will sell it to the dealer next time he calls.
Artifacts found near Mountasser's West Bank vilage. Photo by David Blumenfeld, special to the Chronicle

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