This photo taken in 2003 shows that the lower part of this Hebrew panel was covered in whitewash during the Saddam regime. Now the upper inscriptions have been painted over (photo: Tim Judah)
Eyewitnesses have now confirmed Israeli press reports that irreversible damage has been done to the Jewish character of the ancient shrine of the biblical Prophet Ezekiel at al-Kifl south of Baghdad. Workmen have painted over age-old Hebrew inscriptions.
Professor Shmuel Moreh, chairman of the Association of Academics from Iraq in Israel, who raised the alarm, received the following message from a friend:
" The tomb is safe. However, the Hebrew inscriptions were removed not by intention, but as a result of building and reconstruction in the tomb itself. The unskilled workers are unaware of the significance of these inscriptions, so they cover them with paint or build upon them. In such case the damage and our loss is great and irreversible."
Following articles on Ur News, Point of No Return here and here, in the blogosphere, in The Jerusalem Post and Ynet News, Iraqi TV News showed (old) footage of undamaged upper inscriptions and blamed Saddam's Ba'ath regime for whitewashing the lower part of the Hebrew inscriptions. However, it seems that the upper inscriptions have also now been covered over.
Professor Shmuel Moreh is trying, besides raising a worldwide media campaign, to find a way to reach the Iraqi authorities. He wishes to ask them to investigate the damage and urge that the reconstruction of the tomb be entrusted to UNESCO in order to stop further damage. " The world can't stay indifferent towards the destruction of one of the oldest and most sacred and important shrines in the world," he says. To contact the Director General of UNESCO, Mrs Irina Bokova, please write to her at 1, rue Mollis, Paris 75732, France or fill in the contact form at her personal website http://www.bokova.eu/?page_id=66
When Iraq still had a Jewish community, the shrine of Ezekiel was one of the most important Jewish sites in Iraq. Some 5,000 Jewish pilgrims used to visit the prophet's tomb at Passover. They would stay in accommodation adjoining the shrine. Thousands of Jews lived and owned land in the town of al-Kifl.
On a visit to the tomb in 1910, David Solomon Sassoon wrote in his diary: "the lovely building over the grave is extremely old, built from very big stones said to be the work of King Jehoachim. Above the doorway was a plaque dated 1809/10, which has inscribed on it – ‘this is the tomb of our master Yehezkel the prophet, the son of Buzi the Kohen, may his merit shield us and all Israel. Amen."
"The room with the grave is very high and has flowers painted on the walls and the names of important visitors to the grave. It is mentioned that my grandfather David Sassoon repaired the building in 1859. The grave is very large: 12 feet 9 inches long, 5 feet 3 inches wide and 5 feet 1 inch high. It is covered with a decorated Parochet, which was sent by David Sassoon from Bombay. It is also written on the walls of the visit of Menahem Saleh Daniel to the grave in 1897/8 and his donation to redecorate the grave. Nearby, another room has five tombs of Geonim (Sages)."It is feared that unless action is taken at once, UNESCO may feel that damage to the shrine may become too extensive to declare it a World Heritage site. This happened in Babylon, not far away from al-Kifl, where Saddam erased priceless traces of the ancient site when he built his modern palace.
This photo taken in 1910 shows the original medieval floral designs on the walls where the tomb is housed. All are believed to have been painted over.
Haaretz: Iraqi workmen erase Hebrew from Prophet Ezekiel's tomb
"Iraq maintains that the damage was done unintentionally by untrained workers. Professor Morre, however, is skeptical. "I urge UNESCO to supervise the renovations and to have them carried out by professionals and not simple workers," Morre told Army Radio.
"Every year, scores of Babylonian Jews ascended the tomb. It's the holiest site for the Jews of Babylon," Morre said.
According to Army Radio, the Iraqi government dispelled claims the damage was done on purpose, and asserted that it sees the Jewish sites as assets important for tourism. It maintains that the incident isn't only damaging to Jewish history, but is also harmful to the interests of the Iraqi government."
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This picture shows the walls of Ezekiel's tomb stripped down to the bare brickwork. The Hebrew inscription has now been plastered over (AFP/Getty Images)
The Muqata blog: Israel Army Radio report
UPDATE: Iraq will 'entrust shrine to international authorities'
The Iraqi Government has ordered the Ministry of Antiquities to entrust the reconstruction of Ezekiel's shrine at al-Kifl in Iraq to 'specialised International Authorities'.
The surprise statement follows a storm of publicity raised by Professor Shmuel Moreh, Chairman of the Academics from Iraq in Israel. The news, spread by the blogosphere (including Point of No Return) and Israel Army Radio, that workmen had done 'irreversible damage' to the shrine, plastering over ancient Hebrew inscriptions, seems to have embarrassed the Iraqi government into a damage-limitation exercise of their own.
On Saturday, Iraqi TV and al-Arabiyya TV broadcast a film to show that the tomb itself was not damaged. The Iraqis are hoping that "there will be no more exaggeration about this issue."
Professor Moreh wants the Iraqi authorities to transfer control over the restoration and reconstruction of Ezekiel's shrine to UNESCO. It is not clear when this transfer will happen.
The Iraqis may feel that they have deflected international attention for the moment. Unless the world remains vigilant and holds the Iraqi authorities to their word, and international pressure is kept up, the Iraqis may just quietly continue destroying the original features of the shrine.
Please write to Mrs Irina Bokova, Director General of UNESCO, urging her organisation to take immediate control of Ezekiel's shrine. http://www.unesco.org/webworld/portal/processing/forms/contact/en/form.php (UNESCO website)
http://www.bokova.eu/?page_id=66 (Mrs Bokova's personal website)