Saturday, December 19, 2015

The curious case of the Shapira fakes


Any offers for my daughter's genuine clay penguin? 
For this blog post we are going back in time to the 1880's. Israel was still known as Palestine and was part of the Ottoman empire. 

The Jewish born Moses Wilhelm Shapira from Kamenets-Podolski, which is today part of the Ukraine, emigrated to this world in 1856. Somewhere along the way he converted to Christianity.




Moses Shapira settled in Jerusaelm, got married and became the father of two girls. He made his living selling religious souvenirs and antiques to the pilgrim tourists from his shop on the Street of the Christians. Here is a short video clip of how the street looks today. ( Apart from that baby tractor, I do not think much has changed)..:)


Palestine in those days saw at lot of archaeologists and missionaries who were looking for proof that the Bible was indeed true. So the discovery of the Mesha Stele or the Moabite Stone caused a lot of interest and various museums from Europe tried to buy it. The Moab people, previously only mentioned in the Bible, lived in  modern-day Jordan. Ruth, King David's great-grandmother was a Moabite. 

The Mesha Stele, housed today in the Louvre, is quite interesting in its own right, but for now we are only interested in the misters Charles Clemont-Ganneau and Selim al-Qarim. Charles Clemont-Ganneau was the French archaeologist who eventually managed to procure the Mesha Stele for the Louvre. Selim al-Qarim was a Christian Arab from Jerusalem who was a painter and tour guide. The Bedouin nicknamed  al-Qarim, "the reader" because of his work with ancient alphabets. 


In October of 1869, al-Qarim was sent by Charles Clemont-Ganneau to the right banks of the Dead Dea to make a schematic copy (also in the Louvre today) of the inscription on the Mesha Stele. This inscription helped Clermont-Ganneau to recognize the importance of the Mesha Stele and soon various other museums tried to get hold of the stone.


All the fuss about the Moabite Stone piqued our friend Moses Shapira's interest and he and Selim al-Qarim became the bona-fide providers and sellers of Moabite antiques. The only problem was these 'antiques' were not actually all THAT old. 


These fake Moabite artifacts included large stone-made heads but mostly consisted of vessels, figurines and erotic pieces made from clay. They were covered with inscriptions based on the signs that Salim apparently copied from the Mesha Stele. The inscriptions were a bit weird though and the fakes looked kinda odd but because of the Maobite Stone, the world was ready to collect "Moabitica"!


Shapira managed to sell 1700 of these fake artifacts to the Altes Museum in Berlin and various other collectors. He and and his family moved from the crowded Old City in Jerusalem to a lovely grand house which today is known as Ticho House, now an art museum.


There were some doubts regarding the authenticity of the Moabitica but Shapira and al-Qarim organized excavations and some more artifacts were 'found'. But then Charles Clemont-Ganneau, who probably considered himself as some sort of Moabite expert because of the Moabite stone, started to dig around a bit more and finally the Moabite artifacts were outed as fakes.


Apparently Moses Shapira placed the blame squarely on Selim al-Qarim's shoulders and went quietly back to his shop selling again religious souvenirs and antiques. All was quiet for a while but then Shapira made the news again in 1883 when he offered to sell the Shapira Strips.


The Shapira strips are several pieces of parchment that Shapira said was found in the Dead Sea area and were part of and earlier version of the Bible book Deuteronomy. Apparently the parchments also mentioned an eleventh commandment, instead of the ten that we know. 


Shapira offered to sell the strips for a million pounds to the British museum. Not surprisingly, this caused a HUGE interest and many people came to see the parchments that was displayed in the museum. One of these visitors was none other than...yes, you have guessed it..Charles Clemont-Ganneau, Moses Shapira's arch enemy.


Shapira had asked the British museum not to give access to Charles Clemont-Ganneau to the parchment strips.The British biblical scholar Christian David Ginsburg however allowed Clemont-Ganneau a brief inspection of a couple of the strips. Mostly though he had to look at the two strips of displayed parchment together with the rest of the public.


To no big surprise Clemont-Ganneau declared the parchment as fake and soon after, Ginsburg and other scholars concurred. The million pound deal was off and Shapira was ridiculed. Devasted he fled to the Netherlands and eventually shot himself in a hotel in Rotterdam. The parchment strips were auctioned off and no one has ever heard  about again them.


Our tale however does not end there...The story continues again 60 years later with the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls. The similarities between these scrolls and the Shapira strips are eerily familiar.


They were all found in the dry Dead Sea area. A place that Clemont-Ganneau thought was 'too wet' for parchments to survive. The narrow strips ( 8-9 cm), the vertical lines used as margins for the columns and the use of dots as word divisions found in Shapira Strips are also features of some of the scrolls found in the Dead Sea scrolls.


So, who was right? The humble store keeper with a taste for forgery who managed to mess up the find of the century or the renowned scholar with a vendetta?  The mystery lingers..., and the Shapira strips stays lost. 


And I?  I keep wondering what the heck that eleventh law was!



Many thanks to the people of 'Israel story' who got me interested in Moses Shapiro's fakes. 

More leads to follow:

19 December, 2015
Zichron Yaakov


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