Looters find path to export antiquities via Lebanon

As extremist organizations are destroying and looting antiquities in the Middle East, Lebanon is working alongside UNESCO to dismantle smuggling networks that use the country as a corridor to sell stolen artifacts to European countries.

al-monitor UNESCO director general Irina Bokova (2nd L) visits the Iraqi National Museum in Baghdad, Nov. 2, 2014.  Photo by REUTERS/Thaler Al-Sudani.

Topics covered

unesco, smuggling, mosul, lebanon, baghdad

Jul 30, 2015

The Middle East is the oldest region in the world. It goes without saying that it is greatly rich in historical symbols of the many civilizations that have lived there throughout time, whose people left remnants marking their existence. This made the region a permanent stock for artifacts of various sizes and types, turning it into a focus point for traders and smugglers from all over the world.

In order to protect and conserve these monuments that belong to humanity as a whole, smuggling was made an illegal act. Most countries signed international agreements preventing the “illicit trafficking of antiquities” and made cooperation protocols to retrieve the stolen artifacts and bring them back to the country of origin to which they naturally belong.

For a very long time, there have been secret and illegal works of excavation in the region, in addition to the theft and illicit trafficking of artifacts. What made things worse was the wars that invaded the Arab region, especially in Iraq and Syria, and the lack of deterrent power to protect archaeological sites and museums from looting and robberies during war.

Remarkably, some of the artifacts displayed in cities and prestigious galleries in London, Switzerland, New York and elsewhere — which are originally from Syria and Iraq — are on sale. This explains the existence of gangs and organized “mafias” for the theft and international trade of antiquities.

The major question remains: How did these pieces from the Middle East countries reach these countries that are described as law-abiding? How did they cross their borders and enter their territories, especially those large pieces that cannot be hidden?

As hordes of ignorance and vandalism destroy everything wherever they go and demolish statues they consider to be promoting polytheism, such as in Afghanistan, Mali, Mosul [Iraq] and other countries, they found that trafficking would be a great source of extra money in addition to the money they make selling oil from the wells they seized. Rather, they consider them as compensation for their losses they had to endure after the international coalition forces bombed their oil refineries, which is worth millions of dollars.

This is why the United Nations Education Science and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) launched a campaign, from Baghdad in particular, titled “Unite for Heritage.” Director general Irina Bokova previously told An-Nahar that “antiquities trafficking is a security issue, as it provides funding and financial support to armed groups and terrorists.” She also called on the UN Security Council “to include an item for heritage protection in the context of the missions assigned to the international peacekeeping forces.”

Smuggling from Lebanon

Where does Lebanon stand in all of this? What are the measures taken by the Lebanese government and concerned institutions?

Sources from the Directorate General of Antiquities (DGA) noted that the illegal trafficking of archaeological and cultural properties such as paintings and icons from Syria and Iraq is nothing new. It was already occurring before the Syrian and Iraqi wars, and Lebanon deals with this issue in accordance with international agreements, especially the 1970 UNESCO Convention, which prohibits the illicit trafficking of cultural property. However, smuggling operations increased with the outbreak of war, as all restrictions disappeared.

The supervisor of the excavation and archaeological researches in the DGA, Asaad Seif, said that Lebanon seized large amounts of smuggled and stolen pieces, which were supposed to be exported and sold. He revealed that there is cooperation in this regard between the security and scientific agencies in the DGA, the fight against international thefts bureau of the Internal Security Forces (ISF), the General Security, the Customs and the army in some cases.

Seif further explained how the pieces are being confiscated. “When a smuggling operation is detected, the case is referred to the Financial Public Prosecutors’ [department], which is in charge of confiscating stolen archaeological pieces. The case is later on referred to the DGA for scientific analysis.”

When confiscated pieces are proven to be relics, they are placed in the custody of the DGA, which contacts the concerned authority in the country of origin such as the Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums in Syria (DGAM). The latter sends out a joint detection committee to determine the origin of the pieces and set forth the necessary inventory list. Coordination efforts at the level of the DGA are then made in order to return the stolen pieces to the country of origin through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the accredited official channels.

Seif also talked “about a large number of fake, counterfeit and non-authentic pieces in the Lebanese market. A large number of stolen items that have been detected in the past years — including mosaics, crowns, poles and pieces from ancient Byzantine churches in Homs and other relics from Afamia, in addition to a monument of Palmyra — were placed in the warehouses of the DGAM in Damascus. The Lebanese Ministry of Culture is following up on the work in coordination with the security agencies and the competent judiciary to reduce this phenomenon, which is undermining the country’s heritage.”

Is Lebanon a corridor or a headquarters for contraband?

Seif confirmed, “Lebanon is more of a corridor than a headquarters. The detection operations have been a deterrent to smugglers. Syrian antiquities are being smuggled through other international borders such as Iraq, Turkey and Jordan, especially the occupied Golan. According to data, a large number of smuggled relics go through this channel in particular toward the European countries.”

The Ministry of Culture and UNESCO are cooperating to fight against the illicit antiquities trafficking. Lebanon is a member of the specialized international committee that was established within the International Council of Museums to monitor the implementation of the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the prohibition of trafficking in cultural property.

Minister of Culture Raymond Araiji sent a letter to Bokova in March, calling for “setting up a proactive alert system and more vigilance on part of the competent international authorities, which would allow further control over this trafficking.” He also suggested that UNESCO “launch an international wide information campaign targeting potential smugglers from countries prone to this illicit trade in order to sensitize them to implicitly participate in fighting against stolen pieces and in what contributes in promoting and financing terrorism and intolerance.”

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