Tag Archives: Apamea

Twenty Percent: ISIS “Khums” Tax on Archaeological Loot Fuels the Conflicts in Syria and Iraq

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Early Sunday morning, a Twitter account associated with ISIS posted a horrifying photo gallery documenting the group’s destruction of religious sites.

The images show the demolition of several shrines in the Iraqi city of Mosul, which fell to ISIS forces on June 1oth. Similar pictures and videos, touted by ISIS and its supporters via social media, have in recent months galvanized the world’s outrage and inspired rebellion in the local population.

Those dramatic images obscure a far larger and more alarming pattern of destruction, experts say: the rampant pillaging of archaeological sites across the region, with proceeds going to fund all sides in the conflict. Most recently, experts say ISIS has encouraged systematic looting of major archaeological sites in northern Syria and Iraq, and is now taxing the illicit trade under the Islamic principle of Al-Khums, the Arabic word for one-fifth.

“And know ye (O’ believers) that whatever of a thing ye acquire a fifth of it is for God, and for the Apostle and for the (Apostle’s) near relatives and the orphans and the needy and the wayfarer …” (8:41)

In the Koran, Allah instructs his followers to pay him one-fifth of what they acquire. While the Shia interpret this as an annual tithe on their earnings, the Sunni tradition believes it applies only to war booty. ISIS has cited Al-Khuns in ordering locals to pay one-fifth of the proceeds of looting, which they have sanctioned and overseen across the archaeologically rich northern Iraq and Syria, experts say, citing local sources.

The income from this looting tax is hard to pin down. A report in the Guardian citing flash drives seized from ISIS leadership suggested the group may have brought in as much as USD$36 million from looting in al-Nabuk area, west of Damascus. This figure seems outlandish to many experts, and has not been independently verified. But local sources tell observers that ISIS is dedicating manpower to supervising the looting at major excavation sites, something they would be unlikely to do unless it provided meaningful income.

These now-famous satellite images of Apamea, Syria hint at the scale of destruction:

Apamea on July 2011

Apamea on July 2011

Apamea, April 2012

Apamea, April 2012

 

While less photogenic than the demolition of shrines, experts say this wave of illicit excavations will have a more lasting impact not just on our understanding of human history, but on ISIS finances and the ability of local communities to find common ground after the conflict. In a region where ancient history is underfoot every day, the archaeological record provides one of the few glues that hold multi-ethic societies together.

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MONITORING AND PROTECTION EFFORTS

The situation has intensified efforts by governments, NGOs and foreign and local archaeologists to assess the damage and prevent further destruction to cultural heritage in the region.

In late May, UNESCO hosted an emergency experts meeting with representatives from 22 countries, including Assad’s regime and Syrian opposition groups, to discuss ways to protect heritage sites and prevent illicit trafficking. While much of the destruction in Syrian can be attributed to the Assad regime’s use of barrel bombs on historically important sites, participants said the focus was on the less contentious issue of looting, which has been conducted by all sides in the conflict. At the conclusion of the meeting, UNESCO agreed to establish an observatory to monitor “monitor the state of buildings, artefacts and intangible cultural heritage to combat illicit trafficking and collect information to restore heritage once the fighting is over.” It is unclear in the months since the meeting if progress toward the Observatory has been made. According to one participant, “No one has a plan to reach people inside of Syria.”

On the ground in Syria, groups like Association for the Protection of Syrian (APSA) are risking their lives to document the damage to cultural heritage. The Smithsonian and the University of Pennsylvania’s Cultural Heritage Center have been working with the Syrian Interim Government’s Heritage Task Force in Turkey to train local archaeologists and museum officials to protect high-risk collections and sites, such as the Ma’arra Museum’s collection of Byzantine mosaics.

The American School of Oriental Research (ASOR) has signed a $600,000 agreement with the Department of State to “to comprehensively document the current condition of cultural heritage sites in Syria and assess the future restoration, preservation, and protection needs for those sites.” The effort will include the use of Cold-War era satellite imagery to record previously unknown archaeological sites in the region and track any subsequent destruction.

The Syria Campaign, funded by non-political Syrian expats, has gathered more than 9,000 signatures as part of a social media effort to ask the UN to ban on the trade in Syrian antiquities. Heritage for Peace, based on Girona, Spain, has received funding from the Dutch government for a variety of protects to protect cultural heritage in Syria.

There are many similar efforts afoot. Please provide links to others in the comments section below.

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THREE TYPES OF THREATS

aalazm-220x260I recently spoke with Dr. Amr Al-Azm, an archaeologist at Shawnee State University who is involved in several of the above efforts and is in frequent touch with Syrians who are monitoring the situation on the ground. Here’s an edited version of our discussion:

Jason Felch: What are the current threats to cultural heritage in Syria?

Amr Al-Azm: Generally speaking we can identify three types of threats.

First is intentional damage due to it being a war zone. Monuments become part of the war zone. For example, the regime air force dropping bombs on Crac de Chavealier, a world heritage site, because opposition had taken up residence in then. In Aleppo, itself a world heritage site, the regime takes up residence and the opposition tunnels underneath the building they’re in and blows up the entire building. We’ve seen severe damage to monuments like the minaret at the Grand Mosque in Aleppo, which was brought down by the regime because it was a high point. That’s one type of casualty.

Then there’s punitive damage, such as what was done to the souks in Aleppo. The burning of the souks was entirely a punitive act by the regime who had told the citizens that if they allowed their citizens to fall prey to the uprising, “we’ll destroy your livelihood.” It was one of the oldest covered bazaars in the world. Now its gone. Also punitive is ISIS blowing up shrines in Iraq and Syria. They’re trying to destroy the identity of one side or the other.

The third type is the most serious and by far the most common: archaeological looting. Its happening all over Syria: regime held areas, opposition areas, no man’s land. That’s the most dangerous, destructive and most widespread.a22_RTR38PMA

JF: What is driving the looting?

AA: First, there is an established historical knowledge that there is wealth to be found under the ground. In times when there is a breakdown of law and order and no authority, combined with extreme poverty, people will reach into their collective memory and someone will remember their great grandfather dug up a tomb and found a pot of silver and was able to survive the winter.

Another reason: Anything to do with your cultural heritage in Syria belongs to the Assad family. That kicks back if you’re rebelling against the state and the regime. Anything associated with them becomes an acceptable target. Syria had some of the most stringent laws in terms of antiquities ownership. If you’re plowing your field and you hit a stone and discover a mosaic, you must inform the state. The state will come, surround the area, rip out the mosaic and it will disappear. You’re not a stakeholder. All he sees is a valuable item removed from him and taken by a kleptocracy. He says, Why should I let the state have it?660x39062663b27d00de1852b44033ec8a9e3c74736900a

JF: Why do you say the looting is worse that the destruction of monuments or holy sites?

AA: It’s very widespread…just about everybody is doing it. Its happening all over. Especially in the Eastern areas, along Euphrates, there are thousands upon thousands of archaeological sites. They’re destroying many many layers of history and culture that we’ll never recover. It’s so systematic right now, huge chunks of our history is disappearing.

Now with ISIS on the scene, this has become much much worse. ISIS has instituted the concept of khums, the 20% tax, and said to the locals, you can dig on your own land but pay us a fifth of what you make. On public land, they’ve started licensing crews to come in – Turks, Kurds, Iraqis coming with bulldozers to get at the few bobbles coming out. Most of the stuff coming out is not priceless artifacts. They’re pots, a small statue, a tablet or cylinder seals. This stuff is small potatoes economically, so the income is based on bulk more than a significant piece of great value.

JF: What evidence is there to support this?

AA: The evidence comes from locals who we know who I communicate with regularly. They tell is ISIS representatives are at the archaeological sites to make sure the khums is paid.

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JF: What are the trafficking networks that move the objects out of the country to the market?

AA: My sources tell me a lot of this stuff ends up crossing the Turkish border. Some international dealers, non-Turks, 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 Kilis, some of it archaeology. From there, I don’t know where it goes.

There is also evidence of some looting to order by wealthy private collectors. For example, in Palmyra, which is under regime control, there is a famous Roman tomb called the Brothers Tomb. I’ve been told the Tomb of the Three Brothers has been looted and sold off. My suspicion is that it’s looting to order for a collector. Something that well known and important won’t show up on the market.

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JF: What are you and others doing to stop the trade?

AA: There’s now a concerted campaign to try to talk to the main auction houses and the art dealers to persuade them not to deal with these antiquities. We’ve had fairly good progress on that front. Another thing we’re working on is setting up and training locals who are no longer employed in museums or archaeological sites because they’re not in regime areas. We’re getting them working again in a semi-formal function to protect sites and document damage. And we’re working with local activists who are out there with their cameras. One of the problems we have is revealing our sources because they’re working in a very dangerous state. So for now, much of the information they collect can’t be shared.

JF: Given all the loss of human life in the conflict, why should people are about cultural sites?

AA: This cultural heritage is important because it’s directly linked to national identity of Syrians. Syria’s borders were created artificially. It’s very important that Syrians gather around something that helps them claim their common identity, because otherwise the whole things break down. They’ve been able to do this despite a lot challenges. If this cultural heritage is destroyed, they’re going to lose that. Once the current violence ends, if we don’t have this cultural heritage and the symbolic value of it, how are we going to unite ourselves across religions and religious sects? The country’s past is going to be key to reestablish this national identity and reconnect with the symbols its provides.

ISIS knows this. When they target shrines, that’s what they are trying to destroy. But those highly visible and publicized acts are nothing compared to the daily looting of the sites. The history is not in these one or two important shrines. The history is in those hundreds of thousands of archaeological sites stretching hundreds of miles. It is that repository that is being completely decimated.

The destruction of the Bamiyan buddhas as was a catastrophe, but it didn’t destroy the history of Afghanistan. In Syria and Iraq, we focus on the Bamiyan Buddhas and forget the rest. There are no big statues coming out of those sites, so we don’t see the damage. But in years and decades and centuries to come we’ll have huge gaps in our history because of this cultural violence ton an industrial scale.

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UPDATED: Fordham’s Folly? Some Answers, Many More Questions about Acquisition of Syrian Mosaics

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UPDATE 1/31: Fordham has hired an independent expert to “vet the provenance,” and is trying to obtain the original forms from the U.S. Customs Bureau, according to university spokesman Bob Howe. “We’ll share our findings and any appropriate documentation at at the end of the process,” Howe writes. I’ve asked for a timeline and the identity of the expert. Why was this vetting not done before the acquisition?  

UPDATED on 1/26 with comments from Peppard, below.

Last week, Fordham University announced it had accepted a gift of nine early Christian mosaics from an anonymous donor.

The mosaics formed part of a church floor located in what is now northwest Syria, according to a university press release, which showed University museum curator Jennifer Udell and Theology professor Michael Peppard posing victoriously next to the recently uncrated acquisitions.

The acquisition sparked concern for several reasons: According to inscriptions translated by Peppard, the mosaics likely come from an ancient church near Apamea, Syria — the site of devastating looting, particularly in recent years. The acquisition also falls outside the Fordham museum’s collecting area, which until now focused on Greek, Roman and Etruscan art. That collection was built largely from the 2007 donation of objects from William D. Walsh, many of which had no clear provenance before the auction sale where they were purchased. The donation raised concerns among scholars. “The message that it sends is there is nothing wrong with looting and buying illegal objects. Fordham needs to be very careful about this,” UPenn museum director Richard Hodges told the New York Times.

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Finally, the donor has insisted on anonymity, and the press release disclosed nothing of the mosaic’ removal from Syria or subsequent ownership history. Predictably, the announcement has caused a flurry of concern among archaeologists and those who follow the illicit antiquities trade.

Via Twitter, Peppard offered a few bits of information: “Excavation unknown. Entered Beirut antiquities market in 60s. Legally purchased/exported in 1972.”

Legally according to…? “According to Lebanese customs papers and all relevant international laws at the time. Henri Seyrig (Beirut) sent photos of these to J.-P. Rey-Coquais in 1968, so they were already there.”

Where were the mosaics likely found? “There were hundreds of rural church ruins in Syria in mid 20th c. Can’t know for sure, esp. since 2011. I argue Apamene diocese based on names, comparanda, and info from Seyrig in 1968.”

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When pressed for more detail, Peppard demured. “I was brought on to translate the inscriptions. I don’t know everything our legal counsel did, but it was a lot. I asked all the Qs that I knew to ask. I really can’t take this up on Twitter any more. Sorry.”

A similar conversation unfolded on the Facebook page of Elizabeth Marlowe, an art history professor at Colgate University, where Fordham’s Susanna McFadden defended the acquisition.

“Guys, I don’t disagree with you on the ethics of this issue, but to defend my colleagues and their decision to acquire these objects: 1) They were previously collecting dust in someones private collection and would never have otherwise seen the light of day if it weren’t for this acquisition. 2) The curator was very careful to make certain that the mosaics had a clear provenance detailing their purchase well before 1970 before accepting the gift 3) We wouldn’t know where they were from AT ALL if Fordham hadn’t acquired them and thus became accessible to a scholar who has managed to convincingly date and located them (article forthcoming in ZPE) 4) A discussion of the legal and ethical issues about this acquisition will certainly ensue as a result of this acquisition, and is welcomed by the curator and all involved. There will be full transparency. BUT, the mosaics only arrived a month ago, and this article was written by a PR person for the university who knows nothing of the issues and was simply trying to get the word out. Lets not attack prematurely.”

Marlowe responded: “Sorry Susanna; I don’t hold you accountable for this (obviously), but given Fordham’s recent collecting history, I don’t see why we should give their acquisitions decisions the benefit of the doubt. The argument that collecting looted antiquities saves them from oblivion is always trotted out, but the fact remains that if there were no buyers of undocumented antiquities, no one would bother to rip them out of their archaeological contexts in the first place. The celebratory tone of this article, and its utter silence about the larger issues, only encourages buyers and looters to keep doing their thing. And the gushing of the historian is naive, at best.”

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At our request, Fordham has now released additional information about the acquisition in an unsigned “university statement” provided by Udell:

Prior to acceptance of the mosaics, museum and University officials, including the curator, executive director of University Art Collections, and University counsel, plus a Fordham scholar specializing in early Christianity, conducted a thorough review of the mosaics’ provenance, ancient and modern.

In accordance with University policy, and in line with standard guidelines for museums, University personnel reviewed documentation provided by the donor. This included two separate special customs invoices, issued by the U.S. Bureau of Customs and filed with the Treasury Department, which confirm that the mosaics were legally purchased in Beirut on May 19, 1972, and August 4, 1972, and shipped on the SS Concordia FJell and SS Star, respectively, and imported into the United States at the port of Baltimore on June 16 and August 23, 1972, respectively.

The mosaics remained continuously in the possession of the donor’s family until they were given to Fordham.

Though acquired in Beirut, their Syrian provenance was established by Michael Peppard, Ph.D, an assistant professor of theology at Fordham. Among Peppard’s research interests is early Christianity,  including its art, ritual, and material culture. His research on the prosopography of the early Byzantine Christian names on the large round mosaic (based largely upon the work of Pauline Donceel-Voute’s work on church mosaics of Syria and Lebanon) shows that the names, especially the bishop Epiphanius, are closely associated with the Apamene diocese of Syria, the region to the west of modern Maarrat al-Numan on the highway between Aleppo and Damascus.

In a forthcoming article in the Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik (ZPE–Journal for Papyrology and Epigraphy), the international flagship journal for first editions of such artifacts, Peppard shows that:

[The mosaics] were available for purchase earlier than [1972], though. In a March, 1968, letter to Jean-Paul Rey-Coquais, Henri Seyrig reports having seen a group of mosaics from “the region of Tell Minis” for sale, which seems to have included these among others. He made photographs of two of them along with “une série de copies hâtives.” Then in a 1979 article about Apamene inscriptions from Huarte, Pierre Canivet reported that Rey-Coquais had shared with him knowledge of the mosaic inscriptions he had seen via Seyrig, one of which dated the episcopacy of Epiphanius to 463 CE. It would take until 1994, however, for the text of that mosaic (namely, the large rondel now in Fordham’s possession) to be printed, in a footnote by Denis Feissel, who had seen a photograph and a transcription of it from a different source, the records of Jean Marcillet-Jaubert. Finally, the transcription was included in a 1996 article by Rey-Coquais and in that year’s L’Annee epigraphique and Supplementum Epigraphicum Graecum (SEG).

Peppard’s research was conducted prior to the University’s acceptance of the gift. He and Jennifer Udell, Ph.D., curator of University art at Fordham, will continue to publish scholarly examinations of the mosaics’ ancient and modern histories.

Fordham has also amended the release on its website with some of the above information, adding this statement:

Fordham University acknowledges the serious and legitimate concerns for the security of Syria’s ancient archaeological sites and artifacts, and more broadly, the importance of establishing provenance as rigorously as possible in acquiring artworks from antiquity. The University is committed to best practices in antiquities acquisition, documentation, and display.

We have asked Fordham to release the underlying provenance documents to us, so they can be inspected widely and skeptically by those with no interest in the acquisition. We’ll post them here when we have them.

David Gill at Looting Matters has also asked several pertinent questions about the acquisition. [UPDATE 2/1: He has now also raised questions about the Fordham’s Villanovan hut, a bronze head of Caracalla and the Walsh Collection.] To his list we add our own:

Lebanon is notorious as a country of transit for looted antiquities from the Middle East, in part because forged government export documents have historically been easy to obtain. (Just ask Arthur Houghton about the Sevso Treasure and other cases.) Did Fordham obtain copies of the provenance records described above? Do they hold up to close scrutiny?

Why has the donor of such valuable archaeological material insisted on anonymity? What tax write-off did the donor receive for the donation? Given the uniqueness of the material, who provided the arm’s length valuation?

Where is the other related material cited in the Henri Seyrig letter?

In our conversation over Twitter, Peppard asked us, “Honest Q: What would you do differently?” For a start: In light of overwhelming evidence of on-going and historical looting in Syria and the prevalence of false provenance documents, these questions should have been addressed publicly and in detail in the triumphant press announcement.

While we await the release of more details, perhaps now is as good a time as any to dig into that 2007 Walsh donation…

UPDATE 1/26: On Jan 13, I asked Fordham University to release the provenance documents referred to in their release above and details on their due diligence. Specifically, “What in the 1968 letter suggests the Fordham mosaics? Has Fordham seen/obtained a copy of the letter, the photographs or ‘hasty copies’? If so, would you please release copies of them to me?” Fordham curator Jennifer Udell responded the same day, saying, “I am working to get you the relevant documents and the answers to your additional questions. I appreciate your patience.”

It has been 13 days. Despite repeated requests for an update, I have heard nothing further and received no documents.

I have received a number overheated emails from Fordham theology professor Michael Peppard. In his first, on Jan. 14th, he described the above blog post as “a shocking and slanderous personal attack of me.” Noting my request for additional information, he asked, “…Instead of waiting to receive all your answers, why did you proceed to write such defamatory things?”  Subsequent emails continued in a similar tone, accusing me of libel, slander, defamation and unprofessionalism.

Peppard has launched similar allegations at David Gill and at Bill Caraher in the comments section of his blog. Caraher’s response A response from a user “Nakassis” is worth quoting in full: “Ridiculous. Nobody is making any such slanderous accusations and the scholarly community is perfectly legitimate in asking to see the documentation authenticating the legality of the sale. Your (I suspect false) offense is mere smokescreen. Nice try. In any case, the legality of the sale has no bearing on the ethical issue of their purchase, which I notice that you ignore altogether. The fact that thoughtful, professional archaeologists are taking issue with the purchase ought to suggest to you that they might have some legitimate gripes, in which case the best course of action is to say, as your institution did, that you agree with ‘the importance of establishing provenance as rigorously as possible in acquiring artworks from antiquity’ instead of doubling down.”

When I asked Peppard to identify a factual error in my post, he could not, saying instead that I had associated him with modern looting near Apamea. Of course, he made the link between the mosaics and Apamea, not I, and the looting there did not start during the current conflict. Putting his legal threats and outrage aside, Peppard’s point seems to boil down to this: “When photos and transcriptions of an artifact were made over 45 years ago and have been published over twenty years ago, it is simply impossible that said artifact was excavated in 2011.”

Impossible? Perhaps. It will be more clear if and when Fordham releases copies of the documents. But the question is not whether the mosaics were looted during the current conflict in Syria. It is whether they were removed legally – whenever they were removed. Nothing in the information Fordham or Peppard has released answers that question.

According to UNESCO’s database of national cultural heritage laws, Syria has had a national patrimony law since at least 1963. A quick search shows that Article 30 of legislative decree #222 adopted by Syria on October 26th 1963  states: “State owned movable antiquities might not be sold or given as gifts. They must be in state museums.”

Unless Fordham can establish the mosaics were exported from Syria before that date – or that the government sanctioned their export after it – it seems unlikely the university can acquire clear title. This is to say nothing of the ethics of Fordham acquiring the mosaics in exchange for an undisclosed tax-write off for donor who wishes, for reasons unclear, to remain anonymous.

We look forward to seeing the documents.