Priam’s treasure has been rediscovered—three buried crates of priceless gold and silver! Turkey wants it back in the land where it was originally excavated. Turkey’s case would be immeasurably strengthened, however, if it would return the ugly, but justly famous, piece of limestone known as the Siloam Inscription to the place where it was originally found—Jerusalem. Thus far, Turkey has not only refused to return this ancient Hebrew inscription; it has even refused to lend it for a short time to the Israel Museum.
There is a legal doctrine that denies relief to a claimant who does not come into court with clean hands … Turkey would do well to ponder this maxim.
Priam’s treasure was originally discovered in 1873 in the ruins of ancient Troy—in modern Turkey. Heinrich Schliemann, the brilliant German merchant who led the excavation, believed in Homer in much the same way as Fundamentalists today believe in the Bible. He was convinced that the hoard of gold—goblets, brooches, necklaces, beads, plates—was the treasure of Priam, who had reigned as king of Troy when the city was supposedly destroyed by besieging Greeks in about 1200 B.C. Today scholars date the treasure to at least a millennium earlier, but that hardly diminishes its importance or value—second only, many believe, to the spectacular contents of Tutankhamun’s tomb discovered in 1922.
Schliemann, devoted as he was to the culture of ancient Greece, smuggled the treasure to Athens, where it remained until his death. In his will, however, he bequeathed the treasure “to the German people” for “eternal possession” in Berlin. There it was displayed until World War II.
When Allied bombs threatened Berlin’s museums, Priam’s treasure was packed up in wooden crates that were then buried in a protective concrete bunker. In July 1945 Red Army troops prowling through the rubble of the city discovered the bunker and its contents, which included, in addition to Priam’s treasure, several extraordinary paintings said to have been in Hitler’s private collection.
From there, Priam’s treasure was taken to Moscow. For nearly a half century, no one knew what had happened to it. Then last August, Russia admitted that the treasure had been stored in secret, apparently in Moscow’s Pushkin Museum.
Where, if anywhere, it will now go is a matter of intense negotiation, with demands and counterdemands flying between Ankara, Athens, Berlin and Moscow.
The Washington Post quotes the chief of the Turkish culture ministry’s museum department as stating, “We claim ownership to the Troy treasure. Its display in Athens or return to Germany is unacceptable.” The Turks have threatened to “pursue legal means” to obtain the return of the treasure if their claim is not recognized.
Turkey’s demand for the return of Priam’s treasure contrasts sharply with its refusal to return the Siloam Inscription to Jerusalem. The Siloam Inscription, carved in the rock of Hezekiah’s tunnel in the late eighth century B.C. to mark its successful completion, is the most important ancient Hebrew inscription ever discovered. The Judahite king Hezekiah dug the tunnel in anticipation of an attack by Sennacherib of Assyria. Sennacherib besieged the city in 701 B.C. but was unable to conquer it, in part because the city was well supplied with water from a pool at the end of the tunnel. Hezekiah’s tunnel was a remarkable achievement for its time and is even mentioned in the Bible (see 2 Kings 20:20; 2 Chronicles 32:30).
In 1880 an elegant inscription in old Hebrew letters was discovered in the tunnel. It describes how two teams of tunnelers dug from opposite directions and managed to meet in the middle. Vandals soon dug out the inscription, and it landed in pieces in the shop of an antiquities dealer. From there it was taken to Constantinople, now Istanbul, and stored in the archaeological museum. Until recently it was not even displayed in a part of the museum generally open to the public.
In our BAR 17:03 issue, we urged Turkey to return the Siloam Inscription to Jerusalem (“Please Return the Siloam Inscription to Jerusalem,” BAR 17:03). We pointed out that the inscription is not particularly beautiful; it contains no precious metals or gems. Its only importance is cultural. As a cultural artifact, we said, it belongs in Jerusalem, where it was discovered and to whose culture it is central.
BAR’s article was reprinted in the Washington Post and was widely discussed both here and in Jerusalem. This led to discussions with Turkish embassy officials, both in the United States and in Israel. We suggested that the Turks could show their good will by lending the inscription for a short time to the Israel Museum. The answer, even to a loan, was no.
Now the shoe is on the other foot. Turkey wants the gold—Priam’s treasure. There is another legal maxim: He who seeks equity must do equity.
Priam’s treasure has been rediscovered—three buried crates of priceless gold and silver! Turkey wants it back in the land where it was originally excavated. Turkey’s case would be immeasurably strengthened, however, if it would return the ugly, but justly famous, piece of limestone known as the Siloam Inscription to the place where it was originally found—Jerusalem. Thus far, Turkey has not only refused to return this ancient Hebrew inscription; it has even refused to lend it for a short time to the Israel Museum. There is a legal doctrine that denies relief to a claimant who does not come […]