Besides the illicit trade of weapons and drugs, smugglers in the Middle East and North Africa have found a lucrative business in trafficking antiquities.
The smuggling of ancient artefacts to wealthy clients around the world has spiked in the last decade, with experts warning that the region’s archaeological heritage is in peril.
“The problem has dramatically increased since the outbreak of conflict,” said Michael Danti, principal investigator and academic director at the American Schools of Oriental Research’s Cultural Heritage Initiatives. “We are seeing the full range of antiquities.”
Danti noted that “looting is worst in Syria,” where the Islamic State (ISIS) has systematically plundered or destroyed many of the 4,500 archaeological sites that contain historical treasures.
While such looting long preceded the civil war, the conflict “helped to create conditions ripe for widespread, systematic exploitation of artefacts,” wrote Morag Kersel and Fiona Rose-Greenland for the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute. “International market interests, a general breakdown in border controls and competition among insurgent groups for revenue streams all played their part.”
Despite the conditions, Syrian archaeologists have gone to great lengths to preserve the country’s artefacts, in some cases evacuating or hiding them.
On August 18, 2015, Khaled al- Asaad, an 81-year-old Syrian archaeologist and head of antiquities for the city of Palmyra, was publicly beheaded by ISIS after he refused to reveal the location of the city’s hidden artefacts. UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova called his death “a deplorable act, made all the more senseless that it was the result of an attack on the museum and ancient citadel.”
“They killed him because he would not betray his deep commitment to Palmyra,” Bokova said.
By 2016, all six of Syria’s UNESCO World Heritage sites were reportedly damaged or destroyed. Up to 100,000 Syrian cultural artefacts were reportedly under ISIS control.
There have been similar reports in Libya and Iraq.
Italian newspaper La Stampa reported in 2016 that Italian organised crime networks were selling weapons to ISIS in exchange for stolen antiquities, which were then sold in Russia and Asia.
An Interpol database that tracks stolen works of art listed dozens of missing antiquities from museums and sites in the region. “A total of 94 items of invaluable cultural heritage were stolen from the Mosul Museum in Iraq” in 2014-15, the database read. “Many other objects were destroyed.”
While it is impossible to gauge how devastating ISIS’s campaign of destruction has been on the region’s cultural heritage — particularly in Iraq, Syria and Libya — the amount of money the extremist group is taking in is estimated at $150 million-$200 million per year.
ISIS is not the only culprit. Rival militant factions, organised gangs and ordinary citizens seeking a big payout have tapped into the market. This is particularly true in Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories, where the prevalence of historical artefacts and religious relics fuels demand among collectors and traders, but the practice extends to the Gulf and North Africa.
In March 2016, Tunisian authorities stopped a trafficking network from smuggling a rare, 15th-century Torah out of the country. The scroll, which authorities described as “a one-of-a-kind historic artefact” made of ox skin, was reportedly being transported to an unidentified source in Europe.
In all cases, the trafficking apparatus is composed of looters, dealers and collectors who navigate a complex process that can span decades.
“Not all antiquities are sold immediately,” said Danti, who added that the end buyers are not well known. “Many will be transferred back and forth or sit in secret caches for years or even decades.”
“Some antiquities are used for barter exchanges or as criminal collateral in other illegal activities,” he added, saying that “immediate laundering onto the legal market and sale is the only route.”
“Lower-value and mid-value material is being sold using the internet. Higher-end material is more difficult to trace because professional smuggling and dealing networks handle such material. They make use of private sales and the freeport system to protect themselves.”
Much has been done to crack down on the illicit trade of antiquities. In December 2015, the International Council of Museums (ICOM) published an “emergency red list” of cultural objects at risk of being stolen from Libya. The ICOM maintains similar lists for Syria and Iraq.
To more effectively deal with the problem, Danti suggested a number of government measures: “Better monitoring of the freeport system. Stiffer penalties for dealers and purchasers of antiquities. More methods for tracking material… Bilateral agreements between countries to develop and enforce cultural property laws and more law enforcement dedicated to cultural property crime.
“In the end, we need peace in the Middle East. The criminals are exploiting instability and poverty.”