Syrian spy story from Tell Halaf
unusual exhibition has opened at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Entitled Rayyane Tabet Alien Property the exhibition tells the story of the 9th-century BCE stone reliefs excavated in the early 20th century at Tell Halaf, Syria and their subsequent destruction, loss, or dispersal to museum collections around the world.
Examining the circuitous journey four of these reliefs took to arrive at The Met under the aegis of the World War II–era Alien Property Custodian Act, the exhibition also highlights the very personal connection of the reliefs to contemporary artist Rayyane Tabet.
Tabet’s grandfather worked at the Tell Halaf dig, a site that was excavated in the early 20th century by the German archaeologist Baron Max von Oppenheim. Tabet’s great-grandfather, Faek Borkhoche, worked incognito as a translator alongside von Oppenheim whilst serving as an informer for the French government. Borkhoche suspected Oppenheim of using the dig as a cover-up for mapmaking activity in areas under French and British rule.
Tabet knew nothing of his grandfather’s spy story until he was helping his parents clear their home, and came across a book on Tell Halaf by Oppenhiem, and a signed photograph on the wall. Further photos discovered showed his father holding a snake at the excavations.
During his initial excavation at Tell Halaf in 1911, Oppenhiem discovered a sequence of 194 orthostats, or stone slabs carved in low relief. Alternating blocks of black basalt and painted limestone were installed along the base of a Neo-Hittite palace, forming a narrative frieze with images of animals, plants, and deities, and scenes of hunting, war, ritual, and daily life. Today, many of these works have been lost, stolen, or destroyed. Those that survive are dispersed across collections worldwide.
In 2017, Tabet began making rubbings of the existing orthostats. So far, he has created rubbings of thirtytwo basalt reliefs in the Pergamon Museum, Berlin; the Louvre Museum, Paris; the Walters Museum, Baltimore; and The Met. He hopes his rubbings “can maybe provide a platform to confront things like war and colonialism as it relates to the acquisition of antiquities.” The exhibition is on until the 18 January 2020.
The artist Rayyane Tabet’s greatgrandfather, Faek Borkhoche, holding a snake at Tell Halaf