As Iraqi forces are slowly gaining ground against ISIL fighters in Mosul, journalists have been shown the damage done to the museum in Mosul. The museum now sits almost completely empty, with many objects either carted away or smashed.
To be clear though, many of the objects in the museum had been taken away from the museum, an estimated 75% of the collection, as the museum was slated for renovation. Even some of the objects that were damaged and destroyed in the ISIL videos were likely museum-quality reproductions, so though the damage looked to have been catastrophic, many things survived. As for the portable objects, that material seems destined for the international antiquities market, likely with a fabricated history.
Ben Taub reported for the New Yorker on the real market value of the antiquities which are being looted and sold from ISIS-controlled territory. It seems the estimates are very, very inflated. Not a surprise given what we know about estimates of looting.
Taub reports on the event organized at the Metropolitan Museum of Art earlier this Fall:
On Monday, on the blog Jihadology, we got some fresh insight into how ISIS makes its money. They have a short-term financial strategy that relies primarily on seizures and confiscations they classify as taxes. Relatively little comes even from oil revenues, and an even smaller amount comes from the sale of antiquities. The information comes from terrorism researcher Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, who has secured leaked documents from the IS’ financial ministry for a portion of Eastern Syria.
As he pointed out, without firm numbers, estimating just how much revenue ISIS can scrape together from its territories has been a guessing game. Estimates are based on potential revenue from sales of oil and gas; antiquities; taxation; and other streams of revenue. But now we have some firmer figures.
Zelin analyzes the data and concludes based on these documents:
The Journal of Near Eastern Archaeology has a special issue covering the “Cultural Heritage in the Middle East”. There are ten contributions covering Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Libya, and Afghanistan. All of the contributions are available on JSTOR. From the contents:
How much has antiquities looting contributed to funding ISIS? There are a lot of speculative reports out there, but due to the nature of the illicit antiquities trade, and the dearth of first hand reporting the situation remains murky. There seems to be a good opportunity given what we know about the unscrupulous portions of the trade.
Michael Danti in an interview with Rachel Martin for All Things Considered summarizes the second and third hand accounts he’s heard:
MARTIN: Obviously this is part of the world that has a long history with cultural looting and the illegal excavation of antiquities, the sale of those treasures on the black market. How is what’s happening now different than other chapters of this kind of theft and destruction?
DANTI: Well, we’re used to, unfortunately, accustomed to seeing cultural heritage crimes in Iraq. What’s different with Syria is this scale of built heritage in Syria; old city neighborhood in Aleppo, Damascus, Homs and Hamas – neighborhoods that date back 4, 5, 600 years. The number of standing Hellenistic Roman and Byzantine architectural remains there are throughout the country; there’s so much that’s exposed to collateral or intentional damage through combat. There’s damage from vandalism. There are archaeological looters moving in and excavating into the sites. And then there’s just the inevitable destruction that’s caused by neglect because preservation specialists can’t come in and work at the sites and maintain them.
The sliver of good news that I see is the different tone coming from the State Department with respect to heritage issues. Last week Secretary of State John Kerry announced the State Department would partner with the American Schools of Orient Research to document threats to cultural heritage sites in Iraq and Syria.
From Kerry’s remarks at the Met last week:
ISIL is not only beheading individuals; it is tearing at the fabric of whole civilizations. It has no respect for life. It has no respect for religion. And it has no respect for culture, which for millions is actually the foundation of life. Far from hiding their destruction of churches and mosques, they broadcast these, purposefully and with pride, for all the world to see their act of depravity and for all of us to be intimidated and to perhaps back off from our values. For the proud people of Iraq and Syria – ancient civilizations, civilizations of great beauty, great accomplishment, of extraordinary history and intellectual achievement – the destruction of their heritage is a purposeful final insult, and another example of ISIL’s implacable evil. ISIL is stealing lives, yes, but it’s also stealing the soul of millions.
How shocking and historically shameful it would be if we did nothing while the forces of chaos rob the very cradle of our civilization. So many different traditions trace their roots back to this part of the world, as we all know. This is the first thing many of us learned in school. The looting of Apamea and Dura Europos, the devastation caused by fighting in the ancient UNESCO heritage city of Aleppo, the destruction of the Tomb of Jonah – these appalling acts aren’t just a tragedy for the Syrian and the Iraqi people. These acts of vandalism are a tragedy for all civilized people, and the civilized world must take a stand.
NPR yesterday featured an interview with Christopher Dickey, foreign editor for the Daily Beast, discussing the risks posed to antiquities in Mosul:
Well, what’s at risk are some beautiful monumental sculptures, these winged figures, lions and bulls, with the faces of bearded men – Kings, that clearly were idols in the time of the Assyrians. But that are now part and parcel of the history of Western civilization and biblical history especially. And then we’ve also got gorgeous gold jewelry which certainly will go onto the black market and all kinds of smaller pieces of sculpture, earthenware, the kinds of things that give you the texture as well as the beauty of life in that period. So it’s a rich museum but all of that collection is now in the hands of ISIS.