When a decorative calligraphic tile from a sacred medieval monument in Bukhara went missing in 2014, Uzbek historians and scholars were certain that it was lost forever. No one could have predicted that the tile would surface three years later in a London art gallery or that its eventual return to Uzbekistan would be coordinated by none other than the British Museum. Read on to learn more about this amazing true story of theft and recovery.
What went missing?
The artifact at the center of this dramatic story is an enormous calligraphic tile measuring one-half meter in height. Glazed in a bold turquoise color, the tile is part of a high-relief inscription that adorns the entrance façade of the Chashma-i Ayub mausoleum, an 800-year old monument located just outside the city of Bukhara. In its entirety, the inscription reads: “The prophet – peace be upon him – said: I had forbidden you to make pilgrimages to tombs. Now make pilgrimages. This monument was erected in the year five and six hundred.” (The date of five and six hundred in the Muslim calendar corresponds to the Western calendar year of 1208-09 BCE.) According to scholars of Islamic history, the inscription reflects an important tension within the Islamic faith as to whether or not it is a form of idolatry to visit the shrines of saints, and therefore something that should be forbidden in society. The stolen tile was the one at the end of the inscription containing the date.
Where was the tile stolen from?
Inscribed on the “Tentative List” of Uzbek sites under consideration by UNESCO for World Heritage status, the Chashma-i Ayub mausoleum is one of Bukhara’s most sacred sites. Dedicated to the Islamic prophet Ayub—or Job, as he is known in Christianity—the monument is built over the site of a famous, ancient spring. According to legend, the prophet Job had come as a wanderer to Bukhara, which was suffering through a terrible drought. Job struck the ground with his staff, and a fresh spring with clean water appeared. The name Chashma-i Ayub can be literally translated as “the spring of Job.” For centuries, visitors made pilgrimages to the monument to drink the water, which was believed to have special healing and restorative powers.
Constructed in the early 13th century BCE with many additions made over the years, the Chashma-i Ayub monument is a well-preserved example of Central Asian architecture in the medieval period. In particular, the central part of the mausoleum, which was built by order of the emperor Timur in 1380, remains completely intact. Today, visitors to the site can also take in the adjacent Museum of Water Supply, which showcases the fascinating history of water and water supply systems in this dry and arid region.
How was the tile recovered?
Although no one knows exactly how the tile was stolen and removed from Uzbekistan, experts speculate that it was likely taken by air to Europe and smuggled through customs. The theft occurred in 2014. Three years later, the tile was purchased by London-based Simon Ray, a leading and reputable dealer in Indian and Islamic art, who had been assured that the tile was part of a long-established German collection.
As the theft of the tile had never been officially reported, Ray had no idea that it was stolen until Professor James Allan—a former Eastern art specialist at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum who had recently returned from a visit to the Chashma-i Ayub monument—spotted the tile in a sales catalogue published by the Simon Ray Gallery. Allan notified Ray of the tile’s true provenance, and the two immediately contacted the British Museum. With Ray having expressed a wish to pay to have the tile put back on the mausoleum’s façade, an official handover of the artifact was arranged between the British Museum and the Uzbek embassy in London. British Museum director Dr. Hartwig Fischer confirmed that an essential part of the museum’s mission is to help identify and restore trafficked and stolen antiquities.
The problem of antiquity trafficking.
While the story of the Chashma-i Ayub tile has a happy ending, there are many more cases of trafficked antiquities that are never resolved. Unfortunately, the theft and looting of historical artifacts and antiquities is not an uncommon occurrence, particularly in regions of the world where war and conflict have led to significant civil instability, but experts are quick to point out that the risk of theft can affect any monument or historical site. The theft of the Chashma-i Ayub tile, for example, was particularly audacious: not only was the tile taken from a popular tourist site in a country with a stable government, but the thieves had to climb up a 10-meter high entrance in order to take it. However, there is a positive side: this brazen theft inspired Uzbek authorities to partner with the British embassy and the National Crime Agency on a training initiative intended to help educate law enforcement officers and heritage officials about the detection and process of art and antiquities trafficking.