The exquisite golden tiara, inlaid with precious stones by master craftsmen about 1,500 years ago, was one of the world’s most valuable artifacts from the bloody rule of Attila the Hun, who rode with warriors on horseback in the bottom of Europe in the 5th century.
Hun’s diadem has now disappeared from the museum in Ukraine that housed it – perhaps, historians fear, forever. Russian troops removed the priceless crown and a host of other treasures after capturing the Ukrainian city of Melitopol in February, museum authorities say.
U Russian invasion of Ukrainenow in its eighth month, it is accompanied by the destruction and looting of historical sites and treasures on an industrial scale, Ukrainian authorities say.
In an interview with The Associated Press, The Ukraine The culture minister said Russian soldiers helped themselves to artifacts in nearly 40 Ukrainian museums. The looting and destruction of cultural sites caused losses estimated at hundreds of millions of euros (dollars), the minister, Oleksandr Tkachenko, added.
“The attitude of the Russians towards the Ukrainian cultural heritage is a war crime,” he said.
For the time being, the government of Ukraine and its Western supporters who supply the weapons are mostly focused on defeat. Russia on the battlefield. But if and when peace returns, the preservation of Ukraine’s collections of art, history and culture will also be vital, so survivors of the war can begin the next struggle: rebuilding their lives.
“These are museums, historical buildings, churches. Everything was built and created by generations of Ukrainians,” the first lady of Ukraine, Olena Zelenska, said in September when she visited a Ukrainian museum in New york. “This is a war against our identity.”
The workers of the Museum of Local History in Melitopol first tried to hide the tiara of Hun and hundreds of other treasures when the Russian troops stormed the southern city. But after weeks of repeated searches, Russian soldiers finally discovered the building’s secret basement where staff had squirmed the museum’s most valuable objects — including the Hun diadem, according to a museum worker.
The worker, who spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity, fearing Russian punishment for even discussing the events, said the Ukrainians do not know where Russian troops took the transport, which included the tiara and about 1,700 other artifacts.
Excavated from a burial chamber in 1948, the crown is one of the few Hun crowns in the world. The museum worker said other treasures that disappeared with the Russian soldiers included 198 gold pieces from the 2,400-year-old era of the Scythians, nomads who migrated from Central Asia to southern Russia and the Ukraine and founded an empire in the Crimea.
“These are ancient discoveries. These are works of art. They are not valuable,” said Oleksandr Symonenko, chief researcher at the Institute of Archeology of Ukraine. “If the culture disappears, it is an irreparable disaster.
Russia’s Ministry of Culture did not respond to questions about the Melitopol collection.
Russian forces also looted museums as they sacked the Black Sea port of Mariupol, according to Ukrainian officials who were driven from the southern city, which has been relentlessly battered by Russian bombing. It fell under Moscow’s full control only in May when Ukrainian defenders clinging to the city’s steelworks finally surrendered.
President Joe Biden spoke on Wednesday about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Mariupol’s city council in exile said Russian forces seized more than 2,000 items from the city’s museums. Among the most valuable items were ancient religious icons, a unique handwritten Torah scroll, a 200-year-old Bible and more than 200 medals, the council said.
Also looted were works of art by Mariupol-born painters Arkhip Kuindzhi and Crimean-born Ivan Aivazovsky, both famous for their seascapes, exiled advisers said. They said Russian troops took their stolen bounty to the Russian-occupied Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine.
The invasion also caused a lot of damage and destruction to the cultural heritage of Ukraine. The UN cultural agency keeps a count of the sites that are hit by missiles, bombs and bombings. With the war now in its eighth month, the agency says it has verified damage to 199 sites in 12 regions.
They include 84 churches and other religious sites, 37 buildings of historical importance, 37 buildings for cultural activities, 18 monuments, 13 museums and 10 libraries, UNESCO says.
The Ukrainian government’s tally is even higher, with authorities saying their count of destroyed and damaged religious buildings alone is at least 270.
While the invading forces hunted for treasures to steal, Ukrainian museum workers did what they could to keep them out of Russian hands. Tens of thousands of items have been evacuated from the front lines and regions hit by combat.
In Kiev, the director of the Museum of Historical Treasures of Ukraine lived in the building, guarding its artifacts, during the first weeks of the invasion, when Russian forces tried, without success, to surround the capital .
“We were afraid of the Russian occupiers, because they destroy everything that can be identified as Ukrainian,” recalled the director, Natalia Panchenko.
Fearing that Russian troops would storm the city, he tried to confuse them by dropping the plaque at the entrance to the museum. He also dismantled exhibits, carefully packing artifacts into boxes for evacuation.
One day, she hopes, they will return to their place. For now, the museum only displays copies.
“These things were fragile, they survived hundreds of years,” he said. “We cannot bear the thought that they might be lost.”