Thursday, June 13, 2013

Lost & Found Treasures, and Stories from the Past

I am writing this post to honor the memory of my father William and grandfather Elias. Dad passed away two years ago at the age of 94. He was fascinated by his father who sadly died in the 1920s when Dad was just a little kid. He used to tell us stories about my grandfather’s expeditions to neighboring countries with a German explorer to excavate ancient ruins and historical treasures. These stories were so intriguing that I wondered many times whether they were real or simply exaggerated by Dad due to the emotional attachment he had to his father.

“The living owe it to those who no longer can speak to tell their story for them.” ― Czesław Miłosz

Five years ago, when I was working in my office at the university a German doctoral student introduced himself as Wolf and asked for five minutes of my time to fill in a questionnaire. After answering his numerous questions, I asked the young man whether he knew any Arabic. His answer was that he was learning it so that he could complete his research in Oriental studies. Then I said promptly, “Oh my grandpa worked with a German Orientalist many years back.” When he asked me about his name, I paused and said, “I think it was Oppenheim.” But when I saw the reaction on Wolf’s face, I called Dad to get the correct name of the German explorer. It was: Max von Oppenheim. He gave me a look of astonishment and said, “Do you know that they are rebuilding Oppenheim’s museum in Germany right now, and I know the two main researchers in charge of this project?”

Wolf then took my e-mail address and the name of my grandfather, and promised to ask these two German researchers to contact me. When I told Dad about what happened in my office, he became very excited to hear some new stories about his long-gone father. Unfortunately, no one contacted me from Germany to the dismay of Dad who kept checking with me on the subject matter until the end of his days.

“Memory is a way of holding onto the things you love, the things you are, the things you never want to lose.”  ― Kevin Arnold

One day, couple of months after my father passed away, and while I was doing routine work in my office, I received an e-mail entitled “Re: Elias Malouf.” My heart almost stopped beating: This was the long-awaited e-mail.  It reads as follows:

“Dear Ms. Maalouf,

Two years ago Wolf-Hagen VA, University of Cologne, was so kind forwarding your E-Mail-address to us. I am sorry that it took so much time getting in contact with you, but my colleague and I were so busy with preparing an exhibition that we neglected answering sooner.

But let me start from the beginning: Elias, your grandfather, worked for Baron Max von Oppenheim (1860−1946). He was engaged as secretary for most of his expeditions. He wrote detailed journals about the encountered Bedouin tribes and the excavations, and hand-copied ancient scripts by drawing them (see enclosed picture).

In 1899, Baron Max von Oppenheim embarked on an expedition that took him to the head waters of the river Khabur. At the tent camp of Ibrahim Pasha, he heard about strange basalt sculptures—half man, half animal—that instantly caught his attention. When he arrived at Tell Halaf shortly afterwards, Oppenheim was not yet aware of the fact that he had stumbled upon the remains of an Aramaic royal palace.

Released from diplomatic service at his own request in 1910, Oppenheim henceforth devoted himself to studying Bedouin culture and exploring Tell Halaf. Initially his spectacular finds were to be displayed at the Pergamon Museum, but when negotiations with the National Museums in Berlin failed, Oppenheim decided to create his own museum. Despite inflation and the economic crisis, he managed to open the private museum on his 70th birthday, 15 July 1930. On 23 November 1943, the Tell Halaf Museum was hit and set ablaze by an aerial bomb. The remainders of the Oppenheim-collection were recovered after the end of the war. But the 27,000 fragments were deemed beyond restoration and it was not before 1993 when preparations to relocate the material led to another viewing and at last to the founding of the Tell Halaf restoration project.

Almost seventy years had to pass for the monumental gods, lions and fabulous beasts to shine anew in splendor. Their discoverer, Baron Max von Oppenheim, had been confident until his death in 1946 that one day they would rise again "like a phoenix from the ashes."

“The past is never dead, it is not even past.”  ― William Faulkner

I am grateful to Dr. Cholidis for giving me this priceless information about Max von Oppenheim and my grandfather, but regret not having received it couple of months earlier simply to show it to my father. I also felt ashamed of thmany times I had doubted Dad’s stories because I thought he had mistaken his imagination for his memories.

“To live in hearts we leave behind is not to die.”  ― Thomas Campbell

Each day, people and events surrounding us make an impact on our lives but we can never tell which story our brain will pick and store away among its treasured things. Leaving it up to our memory alone, imagination and facts can fuse together, making it difficult sometimes to know what really happened and what did not. Similar to how Dr. Cholidis’ e-mail rectified facts for me, I have written this article as a diary that I will keep for my children so they need not question my credibility the day I tell them the story of the fabulous expeditions of Max von Oppenheim and their great-grandfather Elias Malouf.

“Memory is a complicated thing, a relative to truth, but not its twin.”  ― Barbara Kingsolver

Enclosed photos are taken from the digital database Arachne which includes the Oppenheim photos.  
PS Maalouf and Malouf refer to the same surname.
Thank You RAP for your valuable Comments!