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:
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.
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.
THREE TYPES OF THREATS
I 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.
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?
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.
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.
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.