Syr­ian spy story from Tell Halaf

Timeless Travels Magazine - - ARCHAEOLOG­ICAL NEWS -

An

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

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