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The Greatest Threat to Cultural Heritage in Syria

UNESCO world heritage site

Can the worst patrimonial disaster since World War II be stopped?

No matter how badly this observer periodically assesses the threat to our cultural heritage as he travels across Syria the reality always turns out to be worse.

As we enter 2015 much of Syria has been reduced to apocalyptic landscapes. During the 45 months of the Syrian crisis war damage inflicted from all sides has created massive damage to our shared global cultural heritage that has been in the custody of the Syrian people for more than ten millennia.

Few would dispute the fact that the level of destruction of Syria’s archaeological sites has become catastrophic. Unauthorized excavations, plunder and trafficking in stolen cultural artifacts in Syria is a serious and escalating problem and threatens the cultural heritage of us all. Due to illicit excavations, many objects have already been lost to science and society.

Today, the single greatest threat to our cultural heritage in Syria is looting. It is rampant and being done from many sources. One virulent source is Da’ish (IS) and like-minded jihadists who desecrate and destroy irreplaceable artifacts and lay siege to and loot more than 2000 archeological sites under its control in Syria and double that number in Iraq.

Jihadists in Syria are estimated to have reaped more than $ 20 million from looted artifacts during 2014 and they rationalize their frenzy of wonton obliteration by sighting religious obligations. Also increasingly active in looting Syria’s cultural heritage are local residents who, with no jobs, income or tangible economic prospects, are increasingly turning to age-old plunder taking advantage of a growing cash market to feed their families.

The trade in looted Syrian cultural artifacts has become the third largest market in illegal goods worldwide. Current laws at the national and international level are woefully inadequate to prevent the illicit traffic in looted antiquities and even less, to effectuate the return of stolen antiquities to their countries of origin. In the 1960s, according to experts, it was a buyers’ market as there were few national collectors interested in Islamic art or other antiquities in Syria. But that that has now dramatically changed since the Gulf countries, Qatar and Abu Dhabi started collecting, and it is also now a seller’s market.

Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and a crossroads for trade and culture for countless centuries, has been particularly hard hit. Its vast labyrinthine souk was gutted by fire in 2012. The Citadel, a castle that dates back to 3000 BC, has also been damaged, while the minaret of the Umayyad Mosque was toppled by fighting in 2013. But hundreds of other sites have also been looted and shops selling Syrian antiquities dot the Turkey side of the border just 40 miles north of Aleppo.

“Syria is the worst-case scenario. It is the worst situation I’ve ever seen. Satellite imagery shows massive, mechanical looting of sites,” says France Desmarais of the International Council of Museums. Palmyra, another ancient settlement founded around 2000 BC, has also been partially stripped by illegal excavations and plunder. What is true with respect to looting in Syria obtains as well in Iraq and Libya.

Last month Syrian authorities confiscated three busts from Palmyra (Tadmor) dating from 200 AD that had been hacked off a tomb.  But looting and illegal trade in antiquities has been escalating over the past nine months with large numbers of antiquities of dubious provenance being found on the rapidly growing illicit antiquities market. A majority of looted artifacts from Syria are being held in antiquity investment storage pits and other stash-sites for future sale at higher prices once the buyers’ market glut of cultural heritage artifacts dissipates. Experts are certain about one thing. The objects will reemerge at some point in the future -- as has always happened in the past.

One of the main problems with combating looting is that many looted artifacts end up in someone’s house – as a status symbol. Eyewitness accounts report that reliefs and mosaics looted from archaeological sites in Syria are being built into walls above fireplaces in homes in the region and no doubt also in the west.  Those to whom these cultural heritage artifacts belong will never see them again given that the main market for looted antiquities has moved from Europe and the United States to Asia, particularly China, where a ravenous appetite for archaeological artifacts continues to spread.

Looting also threatens to deprive Syria of one of its best opportunities for a post-conflict economic boom based on tourism, which, until the conflict started 18 months ago, contributed 12% of the national income. Partly for this reason it is not surprising that looting carries a fifteen-year prison sentence in Syria. With no end in sight for a regional conflict that has claimed the lives of more than 200,000 the prospect for ending looting of Syria’s cultural heritage must be viewed as pretty bleak. Once a site is looted it is largely destroyed as an archaeological site. The knowledge sought and uncovered that comes with how, with what, and where an object was found is lost, probably forever.

As documented by a just released assessment of Syria’s Tentative World Heritage sites using high-resolution satellite imagery, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Geospatial Technologies and Human Rights Project documents the growing problem in remarkable detail  of Dura Europos, Ebla, Hama’s Waterwheels, Mari, Raqqa, and Ugarit. The soon to be released second part of the assessment will present the projects finding and analysis regarding Apamea, the Island of Arwad, Maaloula, Qasr al-Hayr ach-Charqi, Sites of the Euphrates Valley, and Tartus (Tripoli).

American experts have claimed this past week that there has been a 150% percent increase in American imports of looted Syrian cultural property between 2011 and 2013. Five months ago the FBI completed an "Intelligence Threat Study" sent to the US Congress which is considering new legislation to sanction dealing in looted antiquities in Syria.

Listed are 12 areas in the illicit antiquities trade for which the FBI claims there are "intelligence gaps."

Seven of them are:

  • What is the overall value of the illicit antiquities trade in the US?
  • Where are the largest global networks in this trade?
  • How many and which US-based art dealers are trading in stolen or looted goods from Syria?
  • To what extent are US or foreign government workers involved in the illegal trade?
  • Are the networks specializing in the illicit antiquities trade also involved in other criminal activities?
  • How are the proceeds from illegal trade in the United States then transferred back to the networks in the countries of origin?
  • Who are the most active carriers and which countries do they come from? Are the carriers also involved in the drug trade, human trafficking or any other smuggling?

The FBI report states that American authorities have returned more than 7,000 archeological objects to 26 different countries since 2008. The State Department concedes that this is only a fraction of the illegal objects currently being held in the US. The FBI report estimates the illegal trade to be worth $2 billion a year, but others say the actual figures are much higher and more comparable to trading in drugs or weapons.

An investigative report by the German broadcaster NDR documented evidence that Syrian antiquities looted by terrorist groups were being sold through German auction houses. The report revealed how Syrian conflict antiquities were smuggled as handicrafts, laundered with obscuring or outright false documentation, and then sold on the open market. It also exposed the transfer of antiquities to Gulf States, where they were falsely “re-documented” for resale in Western Markets.

There are a few positive signs that looting Syria’s cultural heritage can be curtailed.

According to Gaetano Palumbo, the World Monuments Fund program director for North Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia, there is general agreement among many of the top auction houses to be more cautious about what they auction. At the most recent UNESCO meeting regarding Syria, a representative from Christie’s was present and claimed that they are scrutinizing artifacts carefully  and not putting anything on sale that is not clearly provenanced. Just last year Christie’s withdrew six works of art in a sale in London that had been stolen. “We work closely in partnership with UNESCO, Interpol, the US Department of Homeland Security and Scotland Yard’s art and antiques unit. And we have strict procedures to ensure we only offer works of art which are legal to sell,” Christie’s said in a statement to The National newspaper.  Yet, according to Desmarais, these promising signs are offset by a whole range of smaller actors are involved in trading is Syria’s looted cultural heritage and these include some of  the smaller auction houses, crooked dealers and the underground internet, known as the darknet.

It is also known that Lebanese and Turkish authorities have intercepted many objects at the border in recent months. Turkish officials have reportedly filled several warehouses with seized antiquities but they refuse to return them to Syria until there is a new regime. A number of objects have also been discovered at open markets in Turkey and Lebanon. Many of the looted objects end up in the hands of traders in Gaziantep Urfa and Mardin,Turkey. Others are being sold to dealers in the Bekaa Valley, Tripoli, Ouzai and Khalde in Lebanon for the European and American markets.

The International Council of Museums’ (ICOM) Emergency Red Lists which document cultural objects at risk of looting in Syria, include clay tablets that preserve some of the earliest writing in the world, intricate stone carvings and coins, in addition to the dozens of other items. They are expanding their lists for public distribution to governments and law enforcement agencies. Dubious purchases had been made for years by Western museums, but the practice is now widely considered to be immoral.

What must be done immediately?

Global awareness of the serous assault on the cultural heritage of all in Syria is growing but much more needs to be done according to France Desmarais of the International Council of Museums (ICOM). “As long as it will be chic and posh for you to have an archaeological piece in your living room that guests can admire, we’ll be talking about this. We need to get this message across that it’s a crime. Collecting looted antiquities is a white-collar crime. People have died for this. People buying looted artifacts from Syria are feeding insurgencies, the purchase of arms, financing of foreign extremists and mercenaries and other types of criminality.”

There are two main agreements that deal with looted and trafficked antiquities. One is the 1970 UNESCO convention, which from an international law perspective is weak and exacts at most a slap on the wrist for violators.  A stronger convention is the 1995 UNIDROIT convention. It potentially could enforce more robust international law.  Yet, for this very reason far fewer countries have ratified this convention fearing it might target their citizens, auction houses and museums. Moreover, quite frequently the law is different in the source country from which artifacts are looted than in the country to which it’s smuggled or in which it is sold. A defense lawyers dream come true should she or he be asked to defend an accused dealer of looted artifacts.

Amidst the maelstrom of violence in this region, the 2003 UN a resolution calling on all 197 UN members to stop the trade in Iraqi antiquities without verified provenance also applies to Syria. And the European Union has recently banned the import of antiquities from Syria, but inexplicably this prohibition has not been followed by the International Council of Museums (ICOM). Interpol has drawn up ‘red lists’ of material known to be stolen from Syria and UNESCO has held workshops on how to combat the illicit trafficking of cultural heritage property from Syria and elsewhere. The workshops include national authorities, Interpol, local community organizations, scholars, artists and local citizens and auger well for enhancing global involvement to combat looting.

A petition signed by many archaeologists and accompanied by 17,000 signatures was sent to the UN in September and a ban is expected in the near future.  In addition, a new law in Germany could point the way forward. This will require a certified export license for an antiquity in order to secure an import license. The dealers will inevitably argue that it presumes guilt, but it doesn’t, any more than hygiene certificates for food do. And it won’t be perfect – there will still be forged certificates, but it’ll make a big difference according to Sam Hardy a London based antiquities researcher and blogger.

All countries could help target looting of our shared cultural heritage in Syria in a major way if they adopted the Germany’s law that will oblige dealers and collectors to present an official export license for any ancient artifact showing where the object originated, in order to receive an import license. The German government itself has been highly critical of its most recent legislation, passed in 2007. In a report issued to parliament, the government recently stated that amendments are "urgently needed." The government claims that although it has since become "common practice for museum not to purchase cultural objects of indeterminate provenance," the fact is that "illegally excavated or illicitly exported cultural treasures are still being bought and sold." Dubious purchases had been made for years by Western museums, but the practice is now widely considered to be immoral. The German government is seeking to cut the supply of illicit antiquities to the market, and thereby cut the flow of money to looting and smuggling mafias and militants.

There is also an urgent need for international support to the institutions in the relevant countries through the provision of training and education programs and financial support. Work to control the border in neighboring countries to prevent the smuggling of cultural property. Provide technical and substantive support to the work of documentation of archaeological sites in the relevant countries.

It is nearly unanimously agreed at the United Nations that it must establish additional controls to prevent smuggling and illegal excavation and to identify and put into effect control mechanisms in each of the 197 UN member states so as to eliminate the trade in looted and smuggled artifacts. This can be achieved by encouraging the filling in of gaps in national laws in order to combat and close down channels of smuggling. Another pressing need is to increase the number of specialists who work in customs offices and at airports and seaports. Given the past decade of increased screenings of passengers and cargo searching for drugs, explosives, weapons, hazardous chemicals etc. adding looted antiquities to the list should not be all that problematical for national and international authorities.

There is also a great exigency for international support for countries through the provision of training and education programs and financial support. Specifically, working to control the borders in neighboring countries in order to prevent the smuggling of cultural property while at the same time providing technical and substantive support to the work of documentation of archaeological sites.

In addition there is an urgent need to establish controls to prevent smuggling and illegal excavation and to identify and put into effect control mechanisms in each of the 197 member states of the United Nations so as to eliminate the trade in of looted and smuggled artifacts by filling in gaps in national laws in order to combat and close down channels of smuggling. Another pressing need is for more training of specialists who work in customs offices and at airports and seaports. Given the past decade of increased screenings search for drugs, explosives, weapons, hazardous chemicals etc. adding looted antiquities to the list should not be problematical for national and international authorities.

As Dr. Maamound Abdulkarim, Syria’s Director General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM) pointed our this month during a Conference on the subject in Berlin, the international community has yet to effectively join the fight against the looting of our shared cultural heritage in Syria.

Our global village needs to provide direct aid to the archaeological and cultural institutions of Syria which faces dire consequences from the looting of our shared cultural heritage.


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