Dubai: An ancient handwritten Torah scroll has mysteriously been sent to Israel from Iraq. The Israeli media reported how the scroll arrived in the country, but do not seem to know where it came from.
The Iraqi authorities say it was never part of their state museum and that there is no record of it in the archive for artefacts.
At the same time, however, they've approached the foreign ministry and the Interpol office in Baghdad requesting that the ancient scroll be retrieved, on the basis that because it was sent from Iraq, it is the property of Iraq — irrespective of whether it was owned by the government or by the private sector.
News of the ancient scroll surfaced a few weeks ago when Israeli TV Channel 7 announced its arrival in the country, claiming "an amount" of money had been paid for it.
"The Iraqi cultural ministry, then, wrote to the foreign ministry and Interpol to initiate a follow-up and verification, and to confirm that at a later stage the scroll would be returned to Iraq," said Abdul Zahra Al Talqani, a spokesman for the Iraqi Tourism ministry.
"Because it's illegal to have any Iraqi scroll or artefacts in any other country except Iraq — according to international conventions and treaties — including Unesco's 1970 treaty which prohibits trading of historic artefacts (anywhere in the world)," Al Talqani told Gulf News.
Iraq has no diplomatic relations with Israel and officials say it is now seeking the intervention of a third party in the ongoing negotiations over the scroll.
"The basic argument we're using in our demand to retrieve the archive is that whatever is in Iraq is the property of the Iraqi people and is part of their cultural heritage, whether it was originally in [the] government's hands or was privately-owned," Al Talqani said.
Although all state artefacts have been recorded, the ministry has no details of those that are privately-owned.
"The archives at the (ministry's) centre are electronically-categorised, and it's easy to go through their titles and details at any time. But the archives that are in other libraries, including private ones, are not under the control of the ministry of culture," Al Talqani said.
There's a strong possibility that the ancient scroll, known in Hebrew as a Torah, was privately-owned. But despite calls by the Iraqi government for members of the public to come forward with information on it, nobody has so far turned up.
"Nobody has approached the ministry," Al Talqani said. Dubbed ‘The land of Mesopotamia', Iraq is a treasure trove of artefacts and archives. However, during the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, the country's museums were subjected to massive looting. According to official figures, nearly 36,000 objects were stolen from museums and other cultural locations; many of high cultural or historical significance.
The number includes nearly 20,000 pieces from the 200,000 in the state museum. Today, almost 4,200 have been returned, but according to its inventory 15,400 are still missing.
During the 2003 war, US soldiers found some important Jewish artefacts covered with water in one of the museum basements.
Before the establishment of Israel in 1948, Iraq had one of the largest Jewish population in the Middle East, believed to be well over 100,000 people. In fact the Jewish presence in the Middle East goes back to nearly the 6th Century BC.
However, an almost total Jewish migration happened after 1948, which left only a small minority of Jews in Iraq by 2003 when the US invaded the country.
Many artefacts were moved to the US for ‘maintenance and safekeeping' as a result of the war. And today Iraqi authorities are still asking for them back.