Uzbek artefact recovered at UK auction
The British Museum has helped to recover a medieval Islamic artefact that appeared in a London gallery after it was stolen in Uzbekistan.
The enormous calligraphic glazed tile, which is 500cm high, disappeared in 2014. Thieves left a large hole after they removed it from the entrance facade of a heavily “restored” 12th-century monument 20km from the enchanting Silk Road city of Bukhara.
The turquoise glazed inscription of the tile was thought to have been lost until it appeared for sale at a Mayfair gallery.
An Oxford scholar, who had just returned from the site, spotted it in the Simon Ray gallery’s catalogue.
Ray, who bought it in good faith, contacted the British Museum, which described the tile’s recovery as “dramatic”.
The museum is holding an official handover ceremony with the Uzbek embassy in London this week.
It is unknown whether the tile will return to the mausoleum at the Chashma-i Ayub (pictured) complex.
Dr St John Simpson of the British Museum said: “It’s a museum-quality piece. It is one of the finest, most beautiful, largest… earliest dated glazed tile inscriptions from a religious monument in Central Asia.”
He said the theft from such a historic site of something believed to be worth tens of thousands of dollars was “really quite shocking”.
Ray said he had been assured that the tile had been in a German collection for years.
The monument is dedicated to the Islamic prophet Ayyub or Job in Christianity. Simpson said: “In Koranic tradition, Ayyub is regarded as a martyr and prophet who was rewarded with a source of water to soothe his skin afflictions, and in local central Asian folklore was viewed as a healer and a patron of silk farming, which was an important part of the economy of medieval Bukhara. The well at the centre of the monument was believed to have restorative powers.”
This tile reads: “The prophet – peace be upon him – said: I had forbidden you to make pilgrimages to tombs. Now make pilgrimages.”
Simpson said it was a reference to “an important tension within Islam as to whether visiting the shrines of saints was a form of idolatry and forbidden in society”.
Meanwhile in Uzbekistan, censorship remains heavy.
Uzbekistan’s Agency for Intellectual Property has unveiled a list of 225 foreign films to be banned for import and distribution, including themes like homosexuality, swinging and smoking.
Central Asian news site Asia-Plus said films were banned because of “scenes of violence, inhumanity, ruthlessness, promotion of the consumption of alcohol and tobacco products, promiscuity, frivolity, sexual intemperance, homosexuality and swinging”.
Banned films included Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2016) and the Scary Movie comedy series (2000-2013).
Chashma-i Ayub, like most Uzbek monuments, has been rebuilt with little sensitivity. Picture credit: Flickr