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Museum Of The Bible’s Ancient Hebrew Prayer Book Likely Looted From Afghanistan

The National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul claims a 1,200-year-old Hebrew prayer book at the Museum of the Bible was stolen from their collection in the nineties, and photos of the book at the Kabul museum in 1998 may contradict ownership documents from the U.K. It’s the latest in a series of scandals about looted and forged antiquities that has rocked the Museum of the Bible since its 2017 opening in Washington, D.C.

Billionaire Museum of the Bible founder Steve Green, an evangelical Christian whose family owns the Hobby Lobby craft store chain, and chief curator Jeff Kloha have gone to great efforts to tighten the museum’s acquisition policies after the U.S. government reached a settlement with Hobby Lobby requiring the chain store to pay $3 million for illegally importing artifacts. The museum’s collection included ancient clay tablets and bowls that may have been looted from The Iraq Museum during the American invasion and Egyptian papyrus fragments and other artifacts that had insufficient proof of ownership history, while the Hobby Lobby collection included a 3,500-year-old Sumerian tablet purchased with forged ownership documents.

The Museum of the Bible is now facing allegations that its priceless Afghan Hebrew prayer book, called a Siddur, is another ancient Near Eastern treasure that was smuggled out of its country of origin, perhaps with the collusion of museum staff sympathetic to the Taliban who don’t regard Judaica as part of Shi’ite Afghanistan. A UNESCO Convention made exporting antiquities without permission from the government illegal since 1970.

Scholars are interested in the Afghani manuscript, which dates from between the seventh and ninth centuries CE, because it is the only such Hebrew document dated to the millennium between the Dead Sea Scrolls of the first century CE and the Aleppo Codex written in the tenth century CE. As such, it shows both the evolution of Jewish liturgy and the transmission of Bible texts therein.

Responding to a query from Religion Unplugged, the Museum of the Bible’s chief curator Kloha said the museum will share results of an investigation when completed.

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“As noted on the museum’s provenance research web page, museum staff continues to work with external scholars and experts to research this item’s historical and religious significance, as well the item’s history in (apparently) Afghanistan and later Israel and the United States,” Kloha said. “That research is progressing and nearing completion.”

That web page includes a note about the Siddur, described as an Early Jewish Prayer Book:

This item was acquired in good faith in 2013 after receiving provenance information dating back to the 1950s in the UK. The item was legally exported from the UK. It has been displayed in the US, Israel, and published widely among international news outlets since September 2014. Subsequently, a Museum of the Bible curator discovered published images of the book from 1998, in which the book appears to have been photographed in Afghanistan. Subsequent research has not yet determined the find spot or history of the item prior to 1998. Curators continue to advance this significant research project.

“Nevertheless, this Siddur is an exceptional item of unique historical, cultural, and religious significance, and presents great educational potential. In addition to ongoing provenance research, a book project is underway with contributions from specialists in handwriting, manuscript production, Jewish history in Afghanistan, and Jewish liturgical practices. This book project will make the Siddur available for research and enable additional contributions to this one-of-a-kind manuscript.”

Kloha previously told NPR that the museum’s early acquisitions were due to a lack of expertise and lack of policy at the time.

Brief history of scandals

Hoping to restore a tarnished reputation, the museum recently sent 8,000 clay tablets back to Baghdad that may have been taken from The Iraq Museum in 2003 when looters overran it during the American invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein. The vaguely documented collection was acquired from licensed antiquities dealers in the U.S., the U.K. and Israel and includes clay impressions of seals and incantation bowls meant to ward off demons thousands of years ago.

Hobby Lobby is also suing Christie’s auction house over a 3,500-year-old Sumerian cuneiform tablet inscribed with part of the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh creation poem. Christie’s claims it wasn’t aware the documents it relied on were forged. U.S. Homeland Security agents seized the 15-by-12.5-cm tablet from the museum last September, and now are seeking to return it to Iraq. The Oklahoma City-based chain alleges that, in orchestrating the sale, the auction house violated America’s National Stolen Property Act.

At the end of January 2021, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security returned 5,500 papyri fragments and other pharaonic artifacts from the Museum of the Bible with “insufficient” provenance to Egypt’s Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, concluding Cairo’s efforts since 2016 to regain its antiquities.

Afghanistan may want the Siddur returned

Now Afghanistan is deliberating whether it wants its Jewish prayer book returned. Abdul Manan Shiwaysharq, Afghanistan’s Deputy Minister for Information and Publications in the Ministry of Information and Culture, declined to respond to repeated requests for comment.

But an unnamed senior source in the Afghan government confirmed to Religion Unplugged that the matter is currently being reviewed by the cabinet of Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai. Ghani—who was formerly an anthropology professor at John Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland—is considered sympathetic to the West.

The prayer book may have belonged to the Radhanites, a little-known group of medieval merchants, some Jewish, who traded along the Silk Road linking Christian Europe, the Islamic world, China and India during the early Middle Ages. The Radhanites’ entrepôts and Afghanistan’s early Jewish community were likely destroyed in the 12th and 13th centuries as the Mongol Empire grew from the steppes of Mongolia to extend from Europe to China.

Historians regard the Mongol devastation as one of the deadliest episodes in history. Some link their carnage to the spread of the bubonic plague across much of Eurasia, sparking the Black Death of the fourteenth century.

The Afghani manuscript’s return may inspire other private collectors to repatriate their looted holdings. Some scholars believe the fragile Siddur should be displayed in the Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem, Israel, which houses some of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Aleppo Codex, and other ancient Hebrew manuscripts.

Gil Zohar is a Jerusalem-based reporter. This article first ran at Religion UnPlugged. It is reprinted with permission.

Gil Zohar

Gil Zohar was born in Toronto, Canada and moved to Jerusalem, Israel in 1982. He is a journalist writing for The Jerusalem Post, Segula magazine, and other publications. He’s also a professional tour guide who likes to weave together the Holy Land’s multiple narratives.