Counterfeit Jewish artifacts are commonplace in Turkey – the forward

At the end of March, the Turkish authorities received information that a treasure chest of contraband contraband was passing through the town of Samsun on the Black Sea in two vehicles.

For the Turkish police, this is nothing extraordinary. At the crossroads of Europe and Asia, the country is a transit point for many things, including drugs, refugees, weapons and, in this case, smuggled antiques.

However, when they opened the trunk of one of the suspicious cars, they found something more exciting than the usual treasure of Byzantine coins or Seljuk arrowheads. A leather tome adorned with Hebrew letters written in gold ink was wrapped in a single plastic bag.

Turkish police would soon announce that they had found what they believed to be a 2,000 to 2,500 year old Torah. A Jewish manuscript as old as the Dead Sea Scrolls? The news quickly spread to international media.

Fake Dolce & Gabbana products and fake Torahs

When Rabbi Mendy Chitrik, Turkey’s Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi and director of the Alliance of Rabbis in Islamic States, heard the news, he rolled his eyes.

While Turkish police have yet to release an expert analysis of the artifact, it is almost certainly a fake – and obviously.

On the one hand, the object in question is bound like a book, not like a scroll. It also contains the Star of David, which only became a recognizable Jewish symbol in the Middle Ages, as well as niqqudot – Hebrew diacritical marks created at the end of the first millennium AD and rarely used in religious texts. The gold lettering would also not be a valid ink for a religious manuscript under Jewish law.

Not to mention that part of the text itself appears to be complete gibberish.

This is far from the first such artifact that Chitrik has seen. As a rabbi living in Istanbul for more than two decades, he is frequently contacted by tourists, collectors or members of the community concerned about a “Jewish artifact” they have seen in one of the many. Istanbul bazaars and antique shops.

“Every day I get these messages,” Chitrik said. “I stopped downloading them to my phone because it takes up too much space. They say, “Rabbi, why don’t we save this ancient megillah from Iran or this ancient prayer book from Syria or the Torah scroll from Iraq”. Everything is false. Wrong, wrong, wrong from start to finish. “

Like the so-called Torah found at Samsun, they are easy to spot.

In addition to using contemporary fonts and writing methods, they often use the symbols of modern Israeli or Jewish organizations. One tome that Chitrik was contacted on actually had the Mossad logo on it.

“They take old paper and print in gold letters any random script they find on the Internet,” Chitrik said. “They think if they can make fake Dolce & Gabbana, they can make fake Torah.”

A land steeped in history – real or otherwise

However, this has not always been the case. In the past, it was common to find authentic Jewish artifacts in Istanbul markets.

“Many years ago, when I had more free time, I used to walk around the Grand Bazaar and look for Jewish antiques,” Rabbi Chitrik told The Forward. “Sometimes I would find a Torah, a half Torah, a quarter of a Torah. [The shopkeepers] I found the calligraphy to be very beautiful.

Although he refused to pay the exorbitant amounts demanded by the merchants, he occasionally negotiated them and bought the items for burial in accordance with Jewish tradition – or if they were still usable, repatriated to working synagogues.

“These were legitimate, by that I mean they were genuine Torah scrolls. They were probably obtained indefinitely, ”said Chitrik. “Looking at the scenario, we could see that it was probably stolen from a synagogue in Ukraine or that of Azerbaijan or Iraq or Syria or sometimes even Turkey. And years later, they surfaced in some antique stores to be sold to Jewish tourists, people interested in calligraphy, or anyone else.

This should come as no surprise, given that Istanbul was once the heart of an empire that at its peak spanned from Yemen to Hungary and from Iraq to Algeria. Jews from all over the Ottoman Empire flocked to its capital, and they brought with them their religious texts and artifacts. Later, the city was a major transit point for members of the Zionist movement traveling from Eastern Europe to Palestine, and in the 1930s it hosted many German Jews fleeing the Nazis.

In modern times, Turkey has become a link for the illegal antique trade due to its proximity to conflicts in many of these former Ottoman provinces such as Syria, Iraq, Libya and elsewhere in the region.

“Istanbul is a major transit point for smuggled material, especially because Turkey shares a border with Syria,” said Katie Paul, co-founder of the Athar Project, which monitors the illegal online antique trade. “Turkey is one of the gateways to Europe, so much of the material will then be smuggled overland via Bulgaria and, over time, will be laundered to more legitimate markets. West.”

According to Paul, Jewish manuscripts are particularly popular products for traffickers because of the lax Israeli laws regarding the antiques trade. “Israel is one of the few countries in the entire MENA and Mediterranean region to allow the legal sale of antiques,” she said. “It fuels this illicit market for Jewish material in particular.”

Sam Hardy, a Rome-based criminologist who studies the illegal antique trade in Turkey and Eastern Europe, explained that the physical makeup of the manuscripts – which are typically printed on leather – suggests a rural Turkish origin, where animal skins are plentiful and leatherworking is a common trade.

The counterfeits themselves make it clear that they are neither manufactured nor marketed to an audience familiar with Judaism.

“My perception is that these are produced by non-Hebrew Muslim communities in Turkey or neighboring countries and are consumed by non-Hebrew reading communities in the West,” he said.

With so many smugglers based in Turkey, fakes often appear to help boost trade for real items as part of a package.

“In our work on Facebook, we see a lot of counterfeit manuscripts,” Paul said. “Sometimes we see real manuscripts offered, and in many cases you will see a real one among a sea of ​​fakes offered in many. Often traffickers will try to increase the amount of funding they can get from a particular sale by adding a large number of fakes. “

“If you have a gullible buyer,” she added, “that’s pretty easy.”

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