Turkish authorities were stunned by the artifact they recovered after conducting a successful sting operation against three smugglers in the city of Tokat, a hub for this sort of criminal activity. The three smugglers likely suspected nothing of the buyer, only thinking of the vast amount of money they would be paid for the artifact. Luckily, Turkish investigators kept a step ahead of the criminals the whole way through and were able to swiftly bring the antique smugglers to justice. They could only guess at the value of what they had recovered…
The City Of Tokat
Tokat is an idyllic city in the northern part of central Turkey, some 250 miles away from Ankara. The city is situated on the junction of two rivers, the Tokat and the Yeşilırmak, which then lead into the Black Sea. Naturally, this means the area has been an important center for the transport of goods and people since ancient times. In fact, there has been a city there since the time of the Hittites, an ancient people who lived in Asia Minor.
A Long And Illustrious History
In the millennia since its founding, Tokat has been played an important role for many empires in the region as a key stronghold. Turkey has been contested between some of the most powerful empires in history. The city boasts ancient ruins and important landmarks, such as the 12th century Garipler mosque. Many existing buildings date back to the Ilkanate, Seljuq, and Ottoman periods. All of this makes the city a very popular tourist destination.
Unfortunately for the city’s good name, Tokat has recently gained notoriety as a hub for antiquities smugglers. Not only do well-meaning tourists travel there to respectfully view some of humanity’s cultural heritage — so too do criminal smugglers who profit from the theft of cultural legacy. This black market conceals these valuable historical artifacts from the public and scholars. Instead, private buyers ensure they are locked away in private collections. Furthermore, the money from the purchase is often also used to fund additional immoral activities.
A prime example of this sort of despicable theft came in the spring of 2015, when an anti-smuggling unit of the Turkish police discovered an item of immense value while searching a vehicle in Tokat. The recovered item was an old oil painting that, while not as ancient as some of the other cultural artifacts that have passed through the city, was almost immediately recognized for what it was. It seemed to investigators that they had come across an exemplary piece of art by one of history’s most famous and revered painters…
The peculiar brush strokes on the oil painting were plainly the same as Vincent van Gogh’s unique style. Van Gogh was a post-impressionist Dutch painter who had a notoriously troubled life, suffering multiple psychotic break-downs before he died at the age of 37. He famously severed part of his left ear and sent it to the woman he loved. The last words uttered by the deeply troubled artist were “the sadness will last forever.” Unfortunately, he was virtually unknown during his own lifetime, but his legacy places him among the greatest masters.
Authentication On The Back
While there are many forgeries of the great masters, Turkish police were able to quickly authenticate the painting. Besides van Gogh’s familiar painting technique, the painting had a stamp from the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, as well as information regarding the person from whom the painting may have been stolen. It even lists the painter’s name, the materials used, and the name of the painting: “Orphan man, standing.” The rare painting would have likely fetched a hefty sum on the black market.
An Ancient Find
Turkish authorities contacted the New York museum regarding the painting. It didn’t take them much longer to recover something else, an ancient book that would stun them when they laid eyes on it for its uniqueness and value. The police were alerted to three suspects who were smuggling antiquities and seeking to sell them in Tokat. In response, they initiated a complicated undercover investigation that culminated in a series of four operations inside Tokat itself, as well as two additional ones in the nearby town of Turhal.
The three smugglers waiting for the buyer were expecting a drop-off, but what they got was swift action on the part of law enforcement. The police operations ended in more than just the three smugglers’ arrests and the recovery of an amazing artifact. In total, 10 people involved in the smuggling conspiracy were taken into custody and additional valuable artifacts were recovered. It’s no surprise, for the experienced anti-smuggling unit in the Turkish police knows what it’s doing. In fact, they are a small, but integral part of the global war on terror. So what did they recover?
Possible Terrorist Connection
Although it is unclear if these perpetrators had connections to the Islamic State, the current antiquities trade in Turkey is closely linked to terrorist organizations in the region. In fact, many dealers have been linked to Al-Qaida and other groups that have gained influence in the region. This money-making scheme had terrorists steal artifacts and sell them on the black market to the West, funneling quick cash into their possession. However widespread the scheme was in years past, it has only gotten worse since Islamic State captured large areas of land in Syria and Iraq…
Rise Of ISIS
The Islamic State, previously known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, is an Islamist terrorist organization that grew out of various incarnations of Al-Qaida in Iraq since the 2003 American invasion of that country. Its formation split and estranged its members from Al-Qaida, as Islamic State declared itself a caliphate under Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. A caliph claims to be the prophet Muhammad’s replacement on earth and the rightful leader of all Muslims, so the bid to institute a caliphate was interpreted as a power grab by Al-Qaida.
Islamic State’s Destruction Of Antiquities
While Al-Qaida’s claim to fame is through major global terrorist attacks such as 9/11, the Islamic State is more known for its consolidation of power in the areas it controls and enforcing Shariah Law on the local populace. As such, its radical, literal interpretation of the Qur’an and other Muslim legal texts is used as an excuse to destroy priceless ancient artifacts and buildings. According to their twisted beliefs, these are not rare objects that offer valuable insight into humanity’s history, but false gods that must be destroyed.
The Lucrative Antiquities Market
Although the Islamic State group has destroyed much, such as the temple to the Canaanite deity Baalshamin in Palmyra, it has realized it would be wiser to use looted artifacts from the area it has conquered to fill its own pockets. The media has reported much on the illicit sale of petroleum from Islamic State territory, yet has largely ignored the trade. One Russian diplomat claims “the profit derived by the Islamists from the illicit trade in antiquities and archaeological treasures is estimated at U.S. $150-200 million per year.”
“What They Can’t Sell, They Destroy”
In an interview given to the Washington Post, Qais Hussein Rashid, Iraq’s deputy minister for antiquities and heritage, said, “They steal everything that they can sell, and what they can’t sell, they destroy.” In addition, he said, “We have noticed that the smuggling of antiquities has greatly increased since last June,” referring to when the Islamic State gained control of Mosul and other parts of northern Iraq in a concerted effort to further establish themselves there.
Other Items Of Value Recovered
This is very possibly how the items recovered in the Turkish sting operation came to Turkey in the first place. Besides the ancient book, many valuable pieces of jewelry and over 50 coins from long ago were recovered by the authorities. As much as these items would have fetched on the black market, it’s unlikely that combined they could match the value of the extremely unique book (despite having plainly deteriorated over the years). So what was this precious book and what was it worth?
An Ancient Bible
If you thought it may be a bible, you would be right! While the Bible is the most printed book in world history, this particular copy is about 1,000 years old. Only some 50 pages survive, but many of these are in quite a decent condition, to be frank, especially taking into account how old the book actually is. This book survived all the crusades, holy wars during the Middle Ages when Christians and Muslims violently killed each other, and all the subsequent wars and catastrophes to this day. Like the smugglers, police knew it had immeasurable value…
Beauty Despite Deterioration
A quick glance at the Bible shows time has worn away at it. Discoloration and other signs of decay are immediately evident from the outside, but inside many pages are preserved much better. Looking through the pages, one is taken aback by the intricate religious symbolism and pictures displayed on the pages. In addition, many of these images are covered with thin sheets of gold. This means it was likely intended to be used by a clergyman or rich noble, not tossed in a hotel room drawer like today’s Gideon Bibles.
Image Of Cross Found
The Turkish Andalou Agency, a leading news agency in Turkey, released a video showing someone flipping through the battered papyrus pages to display the incredible artwork and text inside. This is before the invention of the printing press, which means that a scribe had to sit and devote his time and patience in writing out each letter. In addition, each of the images that appear in the manuscript is an original, unique piece of art worthy of exhibition in the world’s premier galleries.
Besides symbolism like the cross, other images show leading religious figures. On one page, what appears to be a mother cradles her baby close. This is likely Mary and her son, Jesus Christ. Other images, likely of Jesus and other biblical figures, are featured throughout the surviving pages of the manuscript. As each page is turned, it is clear what format the scribe used: on the left side appears an image, while on the right the text tells the story.
In fact, the language featured in this copy of the Bible is Assyrian. Although it takes its name from the Assyrians, who at one point dominated much of ancient Near East, this language is actually a dialect of Aramaic, a Semitic language related to Arabic and Hebrew that was spoken by Jesus. Along with Akkadian, another Semitic language, Aramaic became the official language of the Neo-Assyrian Empire around 700 B.C. Eventually, it even supplanted Akkadian in the region, becoming the main language of the Middle East.
The historical significance of this ancient Bible is that it can provide new information about early Christianity in the Near East. The historical development of the religion, from its modest beginnings, may be hinted at through clues in the Bible. While the Roman and Greek cultures are best associated with early Christianity in the West, the Assyrian culture and language may best reflect the form of Christianity practiced by those living in the same areas Jesus lived, as well as the religion’s development since his crucifixion.
Among First Christians
For the first several centuries of Christianity’s existence, it was persecuted by the Roman Empire, which controlled much of the lands where Aramaic was spoken. Despite the persecution, many native Greek, Latin, and Assyrian speakers decided to convert to the new religion that taught love, compassion, and forgiveness. Indeed, the ancient Bible may contain vital clues into the daily lives and rituals of this fascinating ancient culture that was widespread 1,000 years ago.
Hub For Smuggled Antiquities
Since Turkey is an ancient meeting point between ancient Near Eastern civilizations, such as the Assyrians and Arameans, and ancient European ones, such as the Romans and Greeks, a level of poetic justice seems to be met now that these artifacts are being sold to the West in Turkey. That being said, museums and galleries throughout the world have a responsibility to ensure that the antiquities they display come from legitimate sources and have not been used to fund terrorism by evil men.