Artifact trafficking and the battle to stop it: 'It's open season'

A joint Syria Direct-Syrian Voice feature report

IDLIB: In the late hours of the night, 30-year-old Abdelrahman wanders the ancient city of Apamea with a metal detector.

Built by Selucid kings 2,300 years ago, Apamea was once a repository for the wealth of their empire, which spread from ancient Anatolia to modern-day Pakistan. Over the past two millennia, the ancient city, located in today’s northwestern Syria on a frontline between government and opposition forces, passed through Roman and Byzantine hands, among others.

Apamea’s colonnade—the longest in the ancient world—was once one of Syria’s most prized tourist attractions. Now, the tourists are gone and the site has fallen into disrepair, the land pock-marked with holes dug by treasure hunters such as Abdelrahman.

When luck is on his side, Abdelrahman can make between $300 and $500 a month selling buried artifacts, a decent living in the opposition-controlled province of Idlib northwest Syria, where monthly salaries rarely exceed $75.

Apamea lies on the border between opposition-held Idlib and government-controlled Hama province, pushing Abdelrahman and his partners to work only at night—hidden from the watchful eye of both the regime and local rebel militias.

If caught by the regime, they could face up to 25 years in prison. If caught by an Islamist group, treasure hunters could have their hands cut off.

The reward, says Abdelrahman, is worth the risk.

“Once, I sold a single ancient coin for $500,” he tells Syria Direct. “But it’s not always this way. We can dig for weeks and weeks without finding anything.”

One of the coins that treasure hunter Abdelrahman recently dug up in Idlib. Photo courtesy of Abdelrahman.

The fruitless digging can make Abdelrahman feel “hopeless,” but he and his partners continue searching until they find a piece they can sell.

“Of course, I feel guilty whenever I sell a piece of my country’s history,” he says. “But I feel more guilty when I see my kids go hungry.”

Abdelrahman is a small part of a larger picture: Dealers and middlemen, with ties to both opposition fighters and regime officials, purchase the objects he finds. They then smuggle them to Turkey or Lebanon. From there, the relics join a vast black market frequented by wealthy buyers from Europe, the United States and the Arab Gulf states.

But as this vast network of treasure hunters, smugglers and art dealers seeks to profit from the destruction of Syria’s historical sites, an equally diverse group of activists, archeologists and United Nations officials has mobilized to protect it.

Dr. Amr al-Azm is one of the people taking on the treasure hunters. Al-Azm is an associate professor of archeology at Shawnee State University in Athens, Ohio who is originally from Damascus. [Read the full interview with Amr al-Azm here.]

“From 2012 onwards, my colleagues and I in and outside Syria saw this carnage unfold when it came to cultural heritage,” al-Azm told Syria Direct.

A London-educated archeologist, al-Azm was an official with Syria’s Department of Antiquities from 1999 to 2004. Afterwards, he taught at Damascus University before moving to the United States.

Now, he works with the Heritage Protection Initiative, a group of archeologists and concerned Syrians—many of whom are his former students—working to bomb-proof museums and track the movement of Syrian artifacts.

‘Open season’

The black market for relics is a prominent source of funding for militant groups such as the Islamic State, who bring in several million dollars annually from selling artifacts, the US State Department reported in September 2016.

But the Islamic State is not alone in profiting from the sale of Syria’s heritage. Archeologist al-Azm describes the market for relics as a “free-for-all.”

“It’s open season, for everyone,” he told Syria Direct. “It’s not just the opposition or certain groups—the regime is involved as well.”

There is a “long record of senior regime officials and their cronies dabbling in the trade of antiquities,” the archaeologist said. “Some of their houses are veritable museums—I’ve been in them.”

Though the buying and selling of artifacts were once a preserve of the wealthy and well-connected, unguarded historical sites have left the door open for what al-Azm calls “subsistence looting”—hunting for treasure because there’s little else local residents can do to survive.

Since 2012, al-Azm and a number of his colleagues from The Day After Association—a Syrian-led initiative for “democratic transition” in Syria—have been working to safeguard Syria’s heritage. As an international coalition of archeologists, museum curators, and activists, al-Azm says they have success over the past few years protecting archeological sites.

In spring 2016, al-Azm coordinated with a group of archeologists in Syria’s Idlib province to secure the Maarat a-Numan museum after a regime rocket blasted a hole into the side of the building. The museum’s nearly 2,000-square-meter collection of mosaics was left wide open to looters.

If another bomb were to hit the building, the archeologists feared the blast would destroy the mosaics. Local museum curators and activists in Maarat a-Numan took many of the most precious pieces to a secure location.

They covered the mosaics inside the museum with chemical coatings and sandbags. When the next round of bombing struck, the sandbags absorbed the impact and most of the pieces were saved.

 Apamea’s colonnade in 2011 (above) and after the war broke out in 2012 (below). Photos courtesy of Google Earth, DigitalGlobe

“It appears the strategy was a success as [most of the items] are intact,” Ayman Nabu, who works with al-Azm’s Heritage Protection Initiative and heads the Antiquities Center in Free Idlib, told Syria Direct this past May.

Such small-scale initiatives can go a long way to protect some of Syria’s great cultural treasures, says al-Azm.

“If you give us five thousand dollars, we’ll secure a museum and give people employment for 11 weeks,” he tells Syria Direct.

Securing antiquities also, ironically, provides employment for treasure hunters.

“When I come with one of my projects, I say ‘Hey, instead of going out every day with your little metal detector, why don’t you come work with me?’”

“You’ll feel better about it, and you’ll get a similar amount of money,” says al-Azm. “And they come work with us.”

“You can do a lot with very little.”

‘A puzzle with many pieces’

The majority of Syria’s stolen antiquities end up, one way or another, with private collectors in Europe or the Persian Gulf, says Edouard Planche, communications director for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) Paris office.

A 1970 UN resolution prohibits the illegal trade of artifacts and antiquities, and there’s currently a moratorium on the trade of artifacts from Syria and Iraq, says Planche. “But when you see how large this business is, how many thousands of artifacts have fallen onto the black market, it’s a huge task to try and control it.”

“It’s a puzzle with many pieces,” Planche tells Syria Direct.

Abu Tariq is one of those pieces. Based in rebel-held Idlib’s southern countryside, Abu Tariq buys the relics that treasure hunters such as Abdelrahman dig up.

Today, Idlib’s ruling coalition of hardline Islamists prohibits the artifacts trade. Last March, members of the Day After Organization negotiated with the group to codify the protection of ancient sites into local opposition law.

The result was a formal decree—what al-Azm jokingly calls a “fatwa”—that denounced the looting of artifacts.

It is unclear whether this law or similar ones are in fact curbing the pillaging of ancient sites. While one Victory Army official told Syria Direct that a group of looters was recently arrested, a Victory Army judge told the Syrian Voice last month that trading in antiquities is permitted—provided a cut of profits was given to the local government.

Antiquities broker Abu Tariq says that his business hasn’t been affected.

“We work with a dealer in Lebanon, and we smuggle relics to him via Turkey,” he explains. “From Lebanon, they’re sold to museums and collectors in Europe.”

For UNESCO, identifying European buyers is “difficult,” says UNESCO spokesman Planche.

“We’re in contact with some art dealers who we’ve identified as prominent collectors in Europe and the Middle East,” Planche told Syria Direct. “We’re trying to work with them and the International Confederation of Dealers in Works of Art (CINOA), but the process takes time.”

UNESCO’s power to curb the black market is limited. Though UN resolutions outlaw the trade of antiquities from conflict zones, the organization can only raise awareness and coordinate with governments and law enforcement.  UNESCO provides a roadmap for implementing laws to curtail the black market, but if a state is unwilling or unable to enforce their recommendations, there is little the organization can do.

A ‘role to play’

In March 2016, a team of UNESCO observers visited Palmyra in Syria’s eastern desert after it was retaken by Syrian government forces.

Captured by the Islamic State the previous summer, Palmyra’s partial destruction by militants is well-documented. Many of the ancient city’s once-popular tourist attractions such as the towering Temple of Bel were laced with explosives and destroyed on camera by ISIS militants.

UNESCO’s mission was to work with the Syrian government to assess the damage and take stock of what remained. In May 2016, the group reported that a full assessment of the destruction alone would take a concerted, cooperative effort “from all sides”

In the same report, the Russian ambassador to UNESCO, Elenora Mitrofanova, committed to working “under the leadership of coordination of UNESCO” to safeguard and repair Palmyra—which lies in the regime-held Syrian desert, just west of ISIS control. [On Thursday, the Islamic State launched an attempted invasion of Palmyra. As of publication, the results remained unclear as both the regime and the Islamic State declared victory.]

Palmyra was a high-profile case of international cooperation with the Syrian regime, but it’s not enough, warns al-Azm. The regime has “a role to play in the areas they control, but about 70 percent of the country is out of their control.”

For protecting Apamea and other sites in opposition territory, “it’s down to local activists and non-state actors,” warns al-Azm.

“Otherwise, there’d be nothing.”

Original reporting by Rami al-Khattib 

Alaa Nassar

Alaa was forced to flee Damascus with her family because of the pressure from the Syrian regime in 2013. She was a student of Arabic Language & Literature at the University of Damascus. She came to Syria Direct because she hopes to find a new direction in her life and to show the world what is happening in her country.

Justin Clark, Reporter/Translator

Justin Clark studied Arabic at Western Michigan University. He continued his studies at Bethlehem University in the West Bank and the Qasid Institute in Amman. He works as a translator and reporter for the Syrian Voice.