The Islamic State (IS) has been generating significant revenues from the plunder of historical artifacts in Syria and Iraq. The organization encourages digs at archaeological sites and takes a share from the sales. All artifacts are said to be passing through Turkey on their way to buyers across the world.
The plunder of history has reached an unbelievable level, with the warring parties’ indifference to historical heritage coupled with international traffickers taking advantage of authority vacuums in many areas. Millennia-old historical sites have been systematically looted. While state authorities and opposition forces exchange recriminations over the plunder and destruction, IS, the dark power of the region, has been reckless on this issue, too. IS has made the plunder of historical artifacts in Syria a systematic action, turning it into a source of revenue for itself. Concerns are rife that it will pillage Iraq in a similar way.
It is well known that IS respects nothing beyond its own beliefs, has no scruples about bombing and destroying Shiite tombs and mosques as well as Christian churches, and even considers all this a duty. The organization has had no scruples also about razing immovable cultural heritage and selling the movable ones to Western traffickers.
Hair-raising reports have appeared in the international media. Some even say the looting of historical artifacts has become the Islamic State's main source of revenue, estimating that the money it generates in this way is no less than the money it collects through donations and extortion “taxes” to finance its activities.
IS has been encouraging digs in the regions it controls. All excavated objects are sent to Western markets with the help of international traffickers. IS militants personally joined the plunder in the beginning. But after the organization proclaimed a “state,” it adopted a more systematic approach. The militants now only oversee the excavation sites and exact a 20% percent “plunder” tax on the traffickers. According to The Guardian, IS bagged $36 million from antiquities, some 8,000 years old, excavated from the al-Nabuk area alone.
The organization’s occupation of Iraqi territories has sparked a new wave of concerns over the historical heritage of a country which is yet to recover from the cultural devastation that followed the 2003 US invasion. The Iraqi Tourism Ministry said last month that about 4,500 historical monuments had already been damaged or stolen, urging local tribes and UNESCO to protect the cities of Ashur, Hadar and Nemrud.
In Syria, which has six sites on the World Heritage List, 90% of the country’s historical heritage is estimated to be within the boundaries of current battlefields. The increasing severity of the situation has prompted the International Council of Museums (ICOM) to issue an emergency report, which featured a list of Syrian cultural objects at risk and urged all museums, collectors and auction houses across the world not to acquire and sell such objects. The ICOM report was an expression of grave concern at the threat facing Syria’s multicultural heritage — of course, for those who wanted to listen — for, no doubt, the illicit trade is nurtured by the insatiable appetite of Western collectors.
Google images say it all
Google images, easily accessible on the Internet, illustrate how major archaeological sites have been ravaged and come to resemble molehills in just one year. The images, published by National Geographic in July, show the miserable state of the ancient city of Apamea in Syria, which figures on the World Heritage List. The Trafficking Culture website displays even more detailed images. The ancient Roman city has been plundered on a scale it probably never experienced in its 2,000-year history. In the 2011 Google image, the area is seen to be at peace. Less than a year later, in April 2012, the holes left behind the illicit digs make the site look like a field ravaged by moles. There is no doubt that the thieves who plundered the ancient city transferred the artifacts they found to Western collectors.
This kind of pillaging, facilitated by the power vacuum, is said to be carried out by IS, one of the world’s richest terrorist groups. The antiquity trafficking IS controls is estimated to be worth $1 billion. UNESCO estimates that “war antiquities” — artifacts smuggled out from war zones — account for a $2.2 billion worldwide illicit market annually. Worse, the more warring groups become aware of that market, the more it grows. The illicit antiquity trade has become the third-largest criminal market after arms and drug trafficking!
The IS-Turkey route
Amr Al-Azm, an archaeologist familiar with the region who once headed the restoration center in Damascus and is based in the United States, has been interviewed by Jason Felch, the author of the book “Chasing Aphrodite.” In the interview, which Felch published on his website, Al-Azm says the Syrian state is turning a blind eye to the plundering, while IS is telling people in the regions it controls that they are free to look for and sell historical artifacts — of course, on condition they pay a tax. As a result, many smugglers, among them Turks, have rushed in — virtually “with bulldozers.”
Judging by Al-Azm's account, Turkey and Turkish nationals play a leading role in this disgraceful affair. The smugglers’ highway is passing through Turkey. All artifacts are funneled to the world via Turkey.
“Some international dealers … started to come in to Syria but it quickly got too dangerous for them. Now the dealers all hang out across the border in Turkey. Only Turkish dealers come into Syria to meet with locals. They buy and take it back. One of the main centers for the illicit trade is Tell Abiab, on the Syrian side, across the border from Urfa. There is also lots of smuggling in [the Turkish border town of] Kilis. … From there, I don’t know where it goes,” Al-Azm said. Some famous sites, he said, have been looted “to order” by collectors, like the Tomb of the Three Brothers in Palmyra, which is under regime control.
The wars in the region have led to such large-scale bloodshed, migration and devastation that the cultural aspect is again disregarded as an issue to be lamented later. Looting and plunder is a cruel process that also obliterates the identity of the people who live in those lands. Its long-term impact will amount to an irrecoverable disaster. And the allegations that Turkey is turning a blind eye not just to fighters but also to smugglers are terrible. I wish we could say they are implausible.