THE Islamic State’s latest propaganda video shows fighters smashing statues and artefacts that are thousands of years old in the Mosul Museum, Iraq. The destruction is shocking, but maybe it is not random.
Archaeologist Katharyn Hanson of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia has examined the video and points out that valuable objects are missing. She says that despite what the IS fighters say, they are not destroying everything.
The missing objects will likely be sold for a healthy profit on the black market, using international crime networks. Just how much money ISIS generates for its military campaign from looted art is still debated. Some believe the sale of ancient art is a key revenue stream for the terrorist group. Others, including Hanson, argue that ISIS makes far more money from oil stolen from pipelines and ransoms paid for hostages. Either way, treasures are being lost forever.
Following the Mosul Museum rampage, ISIS bulldozed the nearby ancient city of Nimrud in Iraq. Last month, ISIS reportedly also burned thousands of rare manuscripts and documents from Mosul libraries. Looting and the destruction of cultural artefacts and archaeological sites has been rife for years in Iraq and more recently in Syria.
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Now ISIS is attempting to wipe out ethnic and religious minorities that do not adhere to its own world view. “They [ISIS] are literally going to annihilate anything that does not fit their framework,” Hanson says. “I think the intent is to terrorise communities and demonstrate power.”
“Looting is happening everywhere and anyone with a shovel is doing it,” says Michael Danti, an archaeologist at the University of Boston. “All the jihadi groups are doing it, factions within the Syrian regime are doing it, and there are stories of factions within the Syrian opposition doing it. It’s very tempting, and lucrative. Some people are trying to feed their families, others are buying weapons.”
Danti says most of the looted artefacts coming out of Iraq and Syria end up in Lebanon and Turkey. Then they are exported to Europe through countries with more porous borders, like Portugal and Cyprus. “Once it’s in the EU it’s a little easier to get false accreditation, so it can be imported ‘legally’, and moved on to the major centres like London and New York,” he says.
The objects range from sculptures and mosaics to inscriptions and coins, and can fetch up to $60,000 at legal auctions. “You name it, I’ve seen it all,” says Danti. “The stuff we’re seeing is the tip of an iceberg. The really, really valuable stuff goes to high-end criminals and gets sold directly to the buyers.”
So what can be done to prevent further looting? Several research groups are using technology and local contacts to try and document and save some of the treasures. For example, Hanson is leading the Safeguarding the Heritage of Syria Initiative (SHOSHI) to monitor the extent of the damage, train people on the ground to document and preserve remaining archaeological sites, and to get them more equipment.
Nimrud was the second of four ancient Assyrian capitals to be destroyed by ISIS, alongside Nineveh, with reports that a third, Khorsabad, has been attacked, too. But Hanson acknowledges that there’s only so much SHOSHI can do. “We knew Nimrud was going to come eventually,” she says. “I cannot believe that we never sent a 3D scanner to any of these sites.”
Meanwhile, Danti heads a programme funded by the US State Department, which is using satellite imagery and contacts in Syria and Iraq to monitor the destruction of cultural artefacts.
Danti is adamant that the illegal art market is fuelling the looting, in a vicious cycle of positive reinforcement. He is heartened by a recent UN resolution that will push member states to improve their ability to stem the illegal trade in antiquities from conflict zones in Iraq and Syria and punish the criminals.
Hanson agrees it’s important to tackle the international markets, and encourage museums and private collectors to refrain from buying anything that looks like it’s from Iraq or Syria at the minute. But unless the UN uses force to protect historical sites, Hanson is not sure what else the international community can do from a distance. “The region,” she says, “is in a many ways losing its ancestors, its history.”