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Tunisians Struggle to Prevent Archaeological Looting

The issue was brought into the spotlight in 2011, when Tunisia's ousted autocrat Zine El Abidine Ben Ali

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An olive tree stands at the Roman ruins site of Sbeitla, in Kasserine Governorate, Tunisia, Jan. 30, 2016. VOA

Standing near the shrine of the Sufi saint Sidi Boughanem in western Tunisia, Karim points to the earth below his feet.

“There are stairs under the ground,” he said. “We started digging, but we had to stop because someone called the police.”

At the foot of a mountain covered with Roman villas and antique olive oil factories, the shrine sits atop buried structures and catacombs that date back to the Roman and Byzantine periods.

Archaeological sites such as this one in the region of Kasserine are often looted or damaged during illegal night-time excavations by people looking for goods to sell, said Karim, a local historian from the nearby town of Foussana.

Tunisia, Archaeological, Shrine

The looting of archaeological sites is a longstanding problem in Tunisia. Pixabay

Then there are farmers who stumble across antiques by accident while planting crops, he added, and other people who go digging on their own land in the hope of finding artifacts they can sell.

Karim takes part in these digs out of curiosity. But his colleagues are hunting for treasures, he said.

“There are multiple groups (that do this),” said Karim, whose name has been changed for his safety.

“It is happening almost on a daily basis.”

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The looting of archaeological sites is a longstanding problem in Tunisia, said Yasser Jrad, head of the seized objects department at the National Heritage Institute (INP).

Objects of significant historical and cultural value often end up on the European market and in the homes of Tunisia’s rich and powerful, he explained.

The issue was brought into the spotlight in 2011, when Tunisia’s ousted autocrat Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, currently exiled in Saudi Arabia, was sentenced to 35 years in prison in the first of several trials for a range of crimes, including possession of archaeological artifacts.In 2017, the Tunisian authorities seized a rare 15th-century Torah scroll that they thought was being smuggled to Europe.

More recently, in March customs seized 600 antique coins dating from the 2nd century from a car in the coastal town of Sfax.

Tunisia, Archaeological, Shrine
Objects of significant historical and cultural value often end up on the European market and in the homes of Tunisia’s rich and powerful. Pixabay

Figures from the INP, which is tasked with protecting and recording the country’s artefacts, show that the team has received more than 25,000 recovered archaeological items since the 2011 uprising.

Today, the INP gets more than double the number of reports for Kasserine than it did before the uprising, said Mohamed Ben Nejma, head of the region for the institute, adding that the instability and chaos of conflict often provides a window for archaeological looting.

But he also attributed the increase in recovered objects to the fact that the authorities are getting more serious about tackling the illicit antiquities trade.

“It might have been partly to do with state interests,” said Jrad.

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“Especially, since we discovered pieces stolen from our (national) sites in the houses of Ben Ali and his family.”

Keeping hidden 

The western region of Kasserine, where the shrine of Sidi Boughanem is located, is one of the most marginalized parts of the country — with government figures showing about one in four people unemployed, far higher than the 15% unemployment rate for the country as a whole.

It is also one of the most archaeologically rich. There are four major sites located in an area of 8,000 square kilometers (3,000 square miles), and the land is peppered with architectural ruins and antique stones.

Bigger sites are guarded around the clock, according to the INP, while less significant sites have security guards during the day. But the sheer number of small sites makes it impossible to keep an eye on all of them, said Nejma.

Ridha Shili, an expert in national heritage promotion with the University of Tunis, said it is the lack of proper excavation projects and cultural investment in general that leaves the Kasserine region open to looting.

“It is kind of a virgin region,” said Shili, pointing out that his hometown of Thala alone has about 350 archaeological sites.

“The state prefers for (these sites) to remain hidden because we don’t have the means to protect them,” he said.

When a new site is discovered, instead of guarding it or moving the artifacts to somewhere secure, “the state documents it, they take photos and then they put the earth back over it,” Shili added.

As she surveys sites around Foussana for her research, Wafa Mouelhi, an archaeology masters student at the University of Tunis, takes pictures whenever she sees that someone has been digging.

“You see holes, you notice with the placement of stones that someone has been there,” she said. “People are looking for statues or gold and jewelry.”

Mouelhi and other residents inform the local authorities about illegal excavations. In January, she caught someone from the town attempting to dig up a mosaic and ceramics from a Roman site that contains a church.

‘Everything is stolen from us’

Matthew Hobson of the UK-based Endangered Archaeology in the Middle East and North Africa project, said multiple factors need to be taken into account when it comes to protecting heritage sites from theft, which is often driven by poverty and political instability.

“There are economic reasons (for looting),” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in Tunis. “The blame should not be put on the people who are trying to get by day-to-day, but the persons who are furnishing these collections.”

Unlike in Libya or Egypt, the antiquities trade in Tunisia is fairly small and disorganized, according to a local policeman, who asked to remain anonymous to protect his job.

“It’s just pocket money, people sell things for less than they are worth,” he said.

Abdelbaki Idoudi, a civil servant from Foussena, said the country’s unprotected artifacts are fair game and that citizens have the right to benefit from rogue archaeological digs.

“The state left all of (the artifacts) and doesn’t look after them,” he said. “I’m for the practice because people can profit, it can help people get some money from their (heritage).”

Others, such as Ayoub Sayhi, a 22-year-old amateur filmmaker from Thala, called on the government to do more to care for the country’s ancient objects.

To Sayhi, the looting of Kasserine’s antiquities was just another symptom of what he saw as the state’s neglect of the region.

“(My film) is to get the government to do something about this region because it is poor even though it is rich in natural resources,” he said. “Everything is stolen from us, both in the day and in the night.” (VOA)

Next Story

Top 10 Famous Hindu Temples of Tamil Nadu

Most of the temples of Tamil Nadu dates back to 800 to 1400 years and still stands to be rock solid.

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Most of the temples situated in Tamil Nadu were built during the historic and medieval period
Most of the temples situated in Tamil Nadu were built during the historic and medieval period

NEW DELHI: Tamil Nadu is known as the temple city of India and the state is considered as the torchbearers of the magnificent heritage of that region. The Hindu Tamil temples here are a classic example of art form evolved over thousands of years and thus very much glorifies the ancient culture of Tamil Nadu and of India as well.

Tamil Nadu has nearly 33,000 ancient temples scattered on its land and some of them are known to be the biggest temples of the Hindu community. The Hindu Tamil temples located here dates back to 800 to 1400 years and still stands to be rock solid. Although, the historical records describe the scriptures to be 3,000 years old but the wide variety of complex and wealthy architecture of these temple makes it difficult to believe in their ages.

Most of the temples situated in Tamil Nadu were built during the historic and medieval period when Pallavas, Cholas, and Nayakas were the rulers of Deccan Plateau of India. Thus, these Hindu Tamil temples help you to get an immense insight of elaborate and brilliant sculptures of those times.

All these things point out towards the rich culture and heritage of Tamil Nadu.

Also Read: SC directs registration of Kerala temples having elephants

For the coming New Year, we have compiled a list of 10 famous temples of Tamil Nadu that will walk you through a great spiritual experience and offer you to learn about the mesmerizing past of the state. The astounding beauty does spellbind every visitor and tourist.

Meenakshi Amman Temple is a masterpiece of the Dravidian architecture. Wikimedia Commons
Meenakshi Amman Temple is a masterpiece of the Dravidian architecture. Wikimedia Commons
  1. Meenakshi Amman Temple, Madurai

The ‘Meenakshi Amman Temple’ is devoted to Goddess Parvati in the character of Meenakshi and her partner, Lord Shiva in the character of Lord Sundareshwarar. It is one of the most ancient and famous temples of Tamil Nadu, as the temple was built around 6th century AD and a major portion of it got damaged in the 14th century during the Muslim invasion. The present structure was again restored to its pristine glory by the Nayak rulers. The whole temple is furnished with thousands of figures of gods, goddesses, and demons.

The Meenakshi Amman Temple is a masterpiece of the Dravidian architecture and is no less than an ancient architectural marvel. Thousands of devotees throng this temple every year during ‘Meenakshi Tirukalyanam festival’ in the months of April-May.

2. Brihadeeswarar Temple, Thanjavur

Brihadeeswarar Temple is one of the largest temples in India and is dedicated to Lord Shiva. It is located in the Thanjavur district of Tamil Nadu. This Hindu Tamil temple was built during the reign of the Chola dynasty in 11th century AD and stands 216 ft. tall. The temple is known for one of its structure known as ‘Vimana’ and claimed to be the tallest structure in the world.

The Brihadeeswarar temple comes under the UNESCO World Heritage Sites of ‘Great Living Chola Temples’. The Temple also professes of being the world’s first temple completely built from granite stone.

According to archaeological records, the exact is not known and dates back to the 10th century under the rule of Chola dynasty. Wikimedia Commons
According to archaeological records, the exact is not known and dates back to the 10th century under the rule of Chola dynasty. Wikimedia Commons

3. Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple, Srirangam

The Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple is devoted to Lord Vishnu and is located on the Srirangam Island of the Tiruchirappalli city in Tamil Nadu. The temple is another gem built by the Dravidian architectures and is counted as the first amongst the 108 holy abodes of Lord Vishnu. It is spread across an area of over 150 acres with some dazzling tower gateways.

According to archaeological records, the exact is not known and dates back to the 10th century under the rule of Chola dynasty. The temple was plundered in the 14th century by Muslim invaders but was again restored by the Vijayanagara and Nayaka rulers in the 16th century.

Also Read: Arulmigu Masani Amman Temple: Temple of Justice in Tamil Nadu

4. Ramanathaswamy Temple, Rameswaram

Ramanathaswamy Temple is located on the serene island of Rameswaram in Tamil Nadu. This temple is considered as one of the holy ‘Char Dhams’ and included in the 12 sacred Jyotirlingas of Lord Shiva. This Hindu Tamil temple is supposedly built by the Pandya rulers during the 12th century.

Such is the divineness of the temple that it is observed as one of the four primary pilgrimage destinations for Hindus. ‘Vishwalinga’ is located next to Ramalinga, the Shivlinga that is believed to be brought by Hanuman. The most amusing thing is the corridor hall which is acknowledged as the longest in India.

There is a mysterious water stream under the Shivlinga that continuously flows out. Wikimedia Commons
There is a mysterious water stream under the Shivlinga that continuously flows out. Wikimedia Commons

5. Jambukeswarar Temple, Thiruvanaikaval

Jambukeswarar Temple was built during the reign of Chola empire and is located on the Srirangam Island. This temple is devoted to Lord Shiva and represents a Dravidian style of architecture.

The temple holds 5 enclosures inside it and the innermost enclosure is the main sanctum housing the Shivlinga in the form of Appu Lingam. There is a mysterious water stream under the Shivlinga that continuously flows out. According to an ancient ritual, every day the priest of the temple dresses in saree and offers prayer to Lord Jambukeswarar which is a very unusual practice.

6. Kanchi Kailasanthar Temple, Kanchipuram

Kanchi Kailasanthar is believed to have been built under the rule of the Pallava Dynasty and dates back to the late 7th century- early 8th century. This Hindu Tamil temple is the oldest temple in Tamil Nadu and dedicated to Lord Shiva with 16 sided Shivlinga’s made of black granite stone. It is located in Kanchipuram district of Tamilnadu and made entirely of sandstone.

There are various delicately carved sculptures of Lord Shiva and also walls of this temple have pictures of Goddess Parvati. The temple is said to attract a large number of pilgrims, especially during the occasion of Maha Shivratri.

Inside the structure, there is a 1000 pillared hall with carvings of Shivlingas. Wikimedia Commons
Inside the structure, there is a 1000 pillared hall with carvings of Shivlingas. Wikimedia Commons

7. Ekambareswarar Temple, Kanchipuram
Ekambareswarar Temple is counted amongst five elements of the universe and is devoted to the element earth. This shrine holds great substance for followers of Lord Shiva. The exact date of its existence is still not known but it is believed to have been in the existence since 600 AD.

Inside the structure, there is a 1000 pillared hall with carvings of Shivlingas. There is also a mango tree present in this Hindu Tamil temple and is believed to be 3000 years old and what makes it special is that it bears four different types of Mangoes in four different seasons in a year.

Also Read: Enigmatic Mount Kailash: The abode of Lord Shiva

8. Kapaleeshwarar Temple, Chennai
Kapaleeshwarar Temple’s structure dates back to 16th century but after the devastation caused by Portuguese, it was built back by Pallava kings during the 7th century. The Hindu Tamil temple is located in Mylapore district of Chennai.

The temple is devoted to Lord Shiva and is one of the key pilgrimage sites of Tamil Nadu. It presents a tremendous artwork of the Dravidian architecture. The temple also holds an essence of Goddess Parvati and there is also a small shrine dedicated to her.

Monolithic Rock Temples is known for famous five monolithic rock-cut temples. Wikimedia Commons
Monolithic Rock Temples is known for famous five monolithic rock-cut temples. Wikimedia Commons

9. Monolithic Rock Temples, Mahabalipuram
Mahabalipuram is known for some very famous ancient temples present in that area and thus it is listed in the UNESCO World Heritage site. The site was erected during the reign of Pallava dynasty and dates back to 7th century. The town holds a hallmark of the superb craftsmanship of that era. Monolithic Rock Temples is known for famous five monolithic rock-cut temples. The temple has been dedicated to a Pandavas and relates to the period of Mahabharata.

The other attraction of the Mahabalipuram town is the marvelous ‘Shore Temple’. Unlike Monolithic Rock Temple, this temple is constructed of granite stone. This Hindu Tamil temple is devoted to Lord Vishnu along with the Sheshnag.

The whole place in itself is so serene and peaceful that it also complements the whole spiritual environment.

10. Kumari Amman Temple, Kanyakumari
As the name of the place suggests, Kanyakumari was a virgin Goddess and an avatar of Goddess Shakti. The temple is situated in Kanyakumari of Tamil Nadu and dates back to 3000 years back.

Located on the peninsula of Kanyakumari in Tamil Nadu, the ‘Kumari Amman Temple’ is dedicated to the virgin Goddess Kanya Kumari, an avatar of Goddess Shakti. The sculpture of Goddess is a pleasing young girl, holding a rosary in her right hand.

The surrounding od this place really calls for some tranquility and solace. The sea around the holy structure makes it a perfect place to visit and get lost in the serenity of this place.