The British government will be returning rate medieval tiles – dating to the 13th or 14th century – which had been smuggled out of Uzbekistan.
The case began in January of this year when a passenger arriving on a flight from Dubai was detained on entry at Heathrow airport and found to be in possession of six large epigraphic glazed tiles. The traveler gave paperwork that they were replicas ‘made to look old’, and were worth about £70. However, a Border Force officer suspected something was wrong and detained the items.
The British Museum was contacted to inspect the tiles, and they discovered the items came from Transoxiana, a region centred in present-day Uzbekistan, but which included parts of neighbouring Tajikistan, southern Kyrgyzstan and southwest Kazakhstan. Specifically, they believe that at least some of the tiles come from the Shah-i Zinda memorial complex near Samarkand. In 1996 and early 2000, excavations and restoration work were carried out at the site, but a number of the glazed artefacts found in the excavations remain unaccounted for.
Shah-i Zinda flourished in the 11th–12th and 14th–15th centuries when the neighbouring city of Samarkand was at its peak. In 1220 Samarkand was destroyed by the Mongols but, after a period of desertion and ruin, a second group of mausolea was founded, and the tiles date from this phase. Further additions and changes continued to be made to this complex during the 14th and 15th centuries when Samarkand was the capital of the Timurid empire, but it began to fall into disrepair once Bukhara replaced Samarkand as the centre of power and patronage in the region. Samarkand was inscribed on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Monuments in 2001 and is now a very popular destination for tourists.
The combination of three colours of glaze – white, turquoise and cobalt blue – on these tiles dates them to between the end of the 13th and about the mid-14th centuries. They belong to a period which began with the establishment of a khanate under Chagatai Khan, second son of Genghis Khan, in c. 1227 and lasting until 1363. All of the tiles are inscribed, with Qur’anic inscriptions, but only one is complete.
The importer of these tiles failed to make a claim on them, and they were forfeited and handed over to the British Museum for repatriation. They are being safely stored until international travel arrangements permit safe packing and return of the tiles to the Republic of Uzbekistan.
The Ministry of Culture in Uzbekistan has kindly agreed that the Museum can display the tiles for a short period, and they will go on display in Gallery 53 in December 2020. The British Museum has recently signed a memorandum of understanding with the Art and Culture Development Foundation under the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Uzbekistan to continue to collaborate in the identification and advice on stolen or trafficked items of Uzbek origin.
This is one example of a recent work done by the British Museum to identify and returned smuggled goods. In the last several years experts from the museum have had a number of successes, including finding historical items stolen from Iraq and Afghanistan
“The identification of illicitly traded cultural objects is a very important part of the Museum’s work,” said Dr Hartwig Fischer, Director of The British Museum. “Over the past decade we have helped to return more than 2,500 objects to Iraq, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and elsewhere. We work in partnership with law enforcement agencies, museum colleagues, academics and embassy personnel to limit this harmful trade and ensure the preservation of cultural heritage”.