Three academics (Amr Al-Azm, Salam al-Kuntar, and Brian I. Daniels) who have been training Syrian preservationists in Southern Turkey have some more anecdotal insights into how deep the connection between ISIS and the illicit antiquities trade is in an OpEd appearing in the International NY Times:
In extensive conversations with those working and living in areas currently under ISIS control, we learned that ISIS is indeed involved in the illicit antiquities trade, but in a way that is more complex and insidious than we expected. (Our contacts and sources, whom we cannot name for reasons of their safety, continue their work under the most dangerous of conditions.)
ISIS does not seem to have devoted the manpower of its army to the active work of looting archaeological sites. Rather, its involvement is financial. In general, ISIS permits local inhabitants to dig at these sites in exchange for a percentage of the monetary value of any finds.
The group’s rationale for this levy is the Islamic khums tax, according to which Muslims are required to pay a percentage of the value of any goods or treasure recovered from the ground. ISIS claims to be the legitimate recipient of such proceeds.
The amount levied for the khums varies by region and the type of object recovered. In ISIS-controlled areas at the periphery of Aleppo Province in Syria, the khums is 20 percent. In the Raqqa region, the levy can reach up to 50 percent or even higher if the finds are from the Islamic period (beginning in the early-to-mid-seventh century) or made of precious metals like gold.
The scale of looting varies considerably under this system, and much is left to the discretion of local ISIS leaders. For a few areas, such as the ancient sites along Euphrates, ISIS leaders have encouraged digging by semiprofessional field crews. These teams are often from Iraq and are applying and profiting from their experience looting ancient sites there. They operate with a “license” from ISIS, and an ISIS representative is assigned to oversee their work to ensure the proper use of heavy machinery and to verify accurate payment of the khums.
But how much exactly does this amount to? The answer is difficult to quantify. As Sam Hardy points out, the recent claim that ISIS has garnered $36m from antiquities looted in its territory is likely inaccurate:
I can only reiterate that it is (literally) unimaginable that the Islamic State is making $36m from a 0.2%-0.4% share of the market value of the antiquities that have been looted from one district under its rule (as $36m from a 20% khums tax on looters’ and traffickers’ own 1%-2% share would imply a trade value of $9b-$18b of antiquities from al-Nabk alone).
Ursula Lindsey reports for the Chronicle of Higher Education on what foreign academics are doing to combat the looting and destruction in Syria:
Scholars can do little to stop the fighting and looting, but they have created blogs, websites, Facebook pages, and Twitter accounts to monitor the destruction and raise awareness about it. By sharing excavation records, scholars outside the Middle East have helped their counterparts in the Arab world to compile online lists of missing or stolen objects.
Cheikhmous Ali, an archaeologist at the University of Strasbourg, in France, founded the Association for the Protection of Syrian Archaeology, which relies on an underground network of activists and journalists to document damage to historical sites in Syria. The Syrian authorities are often suspicious of people taking photos, so the association’s volunteer informants sometimes use hidden devices, such as tiny digital cameras inserted into pens, to accomplish their goals.
Its not just ancient sites and archaeology that are at risk in Syria. The NPR program Fresh Air today featured a terrific interview with a former punk band drummer who was able to capture recordings of some ancient religious chants in Christian and Sufi communities in Syria. He was able to this before the outbreak of the Civil War there. In relating the history of these musical and religious traditions Jason Hamacher gives a sad account of how much is being lost in Syria as the conflict there continues. Here’s one exchange between the host Teri Gross and Jason Hamacher:
GROSS: So you must have a lot of photographs of ancient sites in Syria that have been fully or partially destroyed by the Civil War?
HAMACHER: Correct. The perfect example is, there was a neighborhood called Jdeideh. It’s actually the Armenian quarter of the city. And they had the absolute best restaurants. There were these five, six, seven hundred-year-old mansions that had a covered – the restaurants were set up in these courtyards and the food was just unbelievable. The food from Aleppo has been regarded throughout history as some of the best Middle Eastern food on earth. The Ottoman sultans would actually have their chefs either train in Aleppo or bring someone from Aleppo to learn how to do this amazing cooking.
Almost that entire neighborhood is gone, leveled. There was a place called the Sissi House that was in Jdeideh that I used to eat at all the time. And it was bombed; gone. Like, someone sent me a photo and I couldn’t even – they’re like, do you think this is the Sissi House?
I couldn’t even understand what I was looking at. There’s so much of that.
GROSS: The cathedral that you recorded the ancient version of “The Lord’s Prayer” that we heard, is that cathedral still standing? Was that cathedral affected by the bombing and the shelling in Syria?
HAMACHER: It still stands. It’s riddled with bullet holes. Everything has suffered damage.
A new project announced in Austin a few weeks back uses declassified satellite images has revealed as many as 10,000 new archaeological sites in the Middle East:
[T]he new Corona Atlas of the Middle East, unveiled Thursday at the Society for American Archaeology’s annual meeting, moves spy-satellite science to a new level. Surveying land from Egypt to Iran—and encompassing the Fertile Crescent, the renowned cradle of civilization and location of some of humanity’s earliest cities—the atlas reveals numerous sites that had been lost to history.
“Some of these sites are gigantic, and they were completely unknown,” says atlas-team archaeologist Jesse Casana of the University of Arkansas, who presented the results. “We can see all kinds of things—ancient roads and canals. The images provide a very comprehensive picture.”
The team had started with a list of roughly 4,500 known archaeological sites across the Middle East, says Casana. The spy-satellite images revealed another 10,000 that had previously been unknown.
The largest sites, in Syria and Turkey, are most likely Bronze Age cities, he says, and include ruined walls and citadels. Two of them cover more than 123 acres (50 hectares). (See also: “Drought Led to the Collapse of Civilizations.“)
This sounds like a wonderful use of technology, offering some extremely useful comparisons with respect to climate change, migration patterns, etc. But for the illicit heritage trade, this offers a mixed set of challenges and opportunities. Looters have another tool (if they needed one) to find sites. But it also allows an opportunity for nations to harden these sites. The comparison of Apamea today to the satellite image of the same site in the late 1960’s is troubling:
The level of detail in the newer image is stark, but there don’t appear to be the mass-looting pockmarks. What do you all think, does increased technology assist hardening of these sites, or provide a map for looters?
In an LA Times OP-ED, Erin Thompson argues Syria is home to a rich array of cultural heritage. Noting the risk to the works of art from thousands of archaeological sites, she highlights an under-acknowledged threat.
As Congress debates whether to authorize military action in Syria in the wake of reported chemical weapons attacks, NBC’s science blog discusses the current state of looting and destruction during Syria’s ongoing Civil war:
Over thousands of years, a large mound, or tell, forms with layers of each civilization piled atop one another, said Jesse Casana, an archaeologist at the University of Arkansas and the chairman of the American Schools of Oriental Research’s Damascus Committee.
On Saturday CJ Chivers reported on looting in Syria, in particular at the ancient site of Ebla:
For decades Ebla has been celebrated for the insights it offers into early Syrian civilization. The scenes here today offer something else: a prime example of a peculiar phenomenon of Syria’s civil war — scores, if not hundreds, of archaeological sites, often built and inhabited millenniums ago because of their military value, now at risk as they are put to military use once more. Seen from afar, Ebla is a mound rising above the Idlib plain. It was first settled more than 5,000 years ago. It eventually became a fortified walled city whose residents worshiped multiple gods, and traded olive oil and beer across Mesopotamia. The city was destroyed around 2200 B.C., flourished anew several centuries later and then was destroyed again. The latest disruption came after war began in 2011. Once rebels pushed the army back and into nearby garrisons, the outcropping upon which Ebla rests presented a modern martial utility: it was ideal for spotting passing government military planes.
Since Clemency Coggins criticized the looting of Maya sites in an influential 1969 article, there is a rich tradition of young archaeologists criticizing looting and destruction of sites. PRI continues its excellent reporting of looting in areas in the Middle East by speaking with Emma Cunliffe, an archaeologist who has been tracking the destruction and looting of sites in Syria using facebook feeds and Youtube videos. We don’t just hear anecdotal stories of looting anymore, often times if someone has a phone or suitable camera, we can see video as well.
Every day she goes online, sometimes for a few hours, to monitor the Facebook feeds of local Syrian groups for word about damaged sites. She’ll scroll past horrific photos of dead children till she comes across mention of a new archaeological site that was shelled or plundered. She says it’s incredible just how much you can find out from these posts. “It’s a new world online now,” she says. “The prevalence of social networking sites like Facebook, ease of access to YouTube, and the way that most people’s mobile phones can take video, means that, all those people who are desperate to share information have a real easy way to upload it and make it accessible.” Cunliffe did her Ph.D research on monitoring Syrian archaeological sites with satellite imagery. When fighting turned fierce in Syria, she began to consult imagery much closer to the ground – videos and photos posted by concerned Syrian citizens. Sites were being damaged and also looted.
PRI embedded videos of looting in Syria. This video Cunliffe found shows looting in a necropolis in Northern Syria:
Clemency Coggins, Illicit traffic of Pre-Columbian antiquities, 29 Art J. 94–114 (1969).
Daniel Estrin, Why One Researcher is Documenting the Damage to Syria’s Archaeological SitesPRI’s The World (2012), http://www.theworld.org/2012/12/syria-archaeological-treasures/ (last visited Dec 13, 2012).
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In an op-ed for the IHT UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova discusses the damage done to cultural sites in northern Mali, Syria and elsewhere. She argues that “Culture stands on the frontline of conflicts, deliberately targeted to fuel hatred and block reconciliation.” That’s exactly right I think. The challenge will be what the rest of the world can do to prevent and repair this destruction.
She outlines the concrete steps UNESCO is taking: crafting an international legal framework, building stronger culture coalitions, and use culture to prevent conflicts:
Unesco works across the globe to harness the power of culture to bring people together and foster reconciliation. I saw this personally when Unesco helped restore the Old Bridge in Mostar, Bosnia Herzegovina, destroyed during the war in the 1990s. We saw the same power during the restoration of the Koguryio Tombs complex in North Korea, undertaken with the financial support of South Korea. This might sound high-minded compared to the terrible news we hear every day from conflict zones. And it is true that culture alone is not enough to build peace. But without culture, peace cannot be lasting. The world thought big when the convention was adopted in 1972. We need to think big once again, to protect culture under attack. We often hear that protecting culture is a luxury better left for another day, that people must come first. The fact is, protecting culture is protecting people — it is about protecting their way of life and providing them with essential resources to rebuild when war ends. This is why, for culture also, there is a responsibility to protect.