How the antiquities black market thrives on Syria: ‘We have the collapse of state institutions and the society holding them all together’

This past spring, Syrian archaeologists and activists from Maarat a-Numan, in southern Idlib province, traveled to Turkey to learn how to bomb-proof a museum.

The training in Gaziantep, coordinated by the Syrian-led Day After Association, brought together members of the Heritage Protection Initiative, a global group of concerned individuals fighting to protect what remains of Syria’s cultural heritage.

The Idlib-based activists and archaeologists learned what they could, then went home and got to work.

The Maarat a-Numan museum houses nearly 2,000 square meters of ancient mosaics. It is among the many targets of Syrian regime air raids. The museum was heavily damaged earlier this year and its collection at risk of being stolen by looters or destroyed by another airstrike.

The activists took some of the most precious pieces to a secure location, then placed sandbags against the faces of the museum’s remaining mosaics after coating them with a special chemical mixture—just as they were instructed to do in their training.

Thousands of miles away, in the small college town of Athens, Ohio, Dr. Amr al-Azm, one of the founding members of the Heritage Protection Initiative, waited for the next bomb to fall.

When a rocket eventually did strike Maarat a-Numan last May, it ripped a hole in the building’s façade, but most of the mosaics survived the blast.

Q: What does the Heritage Protection Initiative at the Day After Association do, exactly?

We try to keep track of antiquities. Remember, we’re not law enforcement, we don’t have jurisdiction or authority. We don’t have protection, so we can’t do a lot. At best, we try to sort of keep tabs on what stuff is moving around. If we hear of something we try to get access to it, and photograph it, and keep tabs on it. Anything outside that is beyond our scope.

From 2012 onwards, my colleagues and I in and outside of Syria saw this carnage unfold when it came to cultural heritage—alongside the human terror, the catastrophe and everything else. Slowly, these networks of people inside Syria—archeologists, activists, museum curators, all started to do things.

What we do with the Heritage Protection Initiative is help coordinate the activities of many of these individuals inside Syria, who are non-state actors. The resources that usually have flowed into protecting sites have gone straight to government institutions such as the Department of Antiquities, which is good since they have a role to play and are trying to hold things together in the areas they control.

But for the regime, even if they take all of Aleppo, they only control 30-40 percent of the country. So, that means that 70 percent of the country is outside their control—it’s down to these local activists and non-state actors to go and save this stuff. Otherwise, there’d be nothing.

Q: What is the history of the illicit artifact trade in Syria? Was it happening before the war at all?

Before the conflict, the illegal antiquities trade traditionally flowed through Lebanon. Senior members of the regime would occasionally dabble in that, people like Ghazi Kanaan, for example, certainly had a penchant for not only acquiring and occasionally selling antiquities, but also used it to reward his loyal, Lebanese cronies. I know this from personal experience.

[Ed.: Ghazi Kanaan was a former Minister of Interior in Syria and head of the dreaded security apparatus during Syria’s occupation of Lebanon until 2002. He died under mysterious circumstances in 2005.]

There’s a record of people such as Rifaat al-Assad and Abu Shaar—senior members of the regime—indulging in, acquiring, keeping, or trading antiquities, along with their cronies. People like George Antaki—a prominent Aleppo businessman—his house is a veritable museum. Large mosaics and very valuable antique pieces—I’ve been to his house, and I’ve seen them. He’s not secretive.

But in the end, it’s illegal for anyone to have private ownership of antiquities, so this existed as a situation before the war started and the traditional conduit for all this stuff was through Lebanon.

Q: There were very harsh sentences for treasure hunting and smuggling before the war. Were these enforced?

Like anything thing else, there was no room for the average Joe to go in and do it. What you did have were very well-established local mafias who were known looters and had the influence to bribe the local authorities.

Usually, the type of person who actually wound up in jail was the poor unfortunate who was walking his sheep across the field, finds a lamp or whatever, puts it in his pocket, and gets stopped at the next checkpoint. Suddenly, he’s “the big looter.”

I remember when I worked with the government. I was the director of the science and conservation labs at the Department of Antiquities from 1999-2004. Every once in a while I was required to go to court as an expert witness in one of these cases.

And they were ridiculous! I never once saw an actual case come up. I remember one of the last ones I was in court for. It was so unfortunate—there was this father and son who’d been thrown in jail for God knows how long—and they were charged with looting and hunting for antiquities because they were caught with a metal detector.

Now, they were sheep herders. They claimed that they were keeping the metal detector since their sheep eat all sorts of crud. Sometimes, they eat bits of metal—barbed wire, stuff like that—so they use it if a sheep gets ill. They run the detector across the stomach to see if it had eaten anything metal—it works for that. Know why? The maximum depth of these crude metal detectors is 1.5-3 centimeters.

You’re not going to be the Indiana Jones of your day with a metal detector that has a penetration depth of 3cm.

Q: What happened with them?

I don’t know. I actually got in trouble with the court for that case. They said “we brought you here to be an expert witness,” and I tried to explain that “this metal detector is not what you think it is. This metal detector is useless for what you claim these people are doing with it.”

I said “Look! It’s even written on the side. If you don’t believe me, look at the instructions. It’s written on the side in bold letters that it has a maximum depth of 1.5-3 cm.”

They were not happy with me.

These are the guys who are going to scapegoated, these are the guys who are going to be blamed, whereas the most serious looters and antique dealers have a way around that. They know the people to bribe and even if they go to jail, they pay to get out. It’s a revolving door.

Q: Who’s benefiting from the antiquities trade now?

If you look at the pattern of how the conflict has unfolded, in 2012, it turns into an armed conflict between the resistance and the regime. This leads to, essentially, a collapse of state institutions and the society that is holding all of this together.

In the ensuing vacuum, you have almost a free-for-all. Major sites like Apamea get completely looted. It’s an open season, for everyone, it’s not just opposition or certain groups—the regime is involved as well.

In Apamea, the regime and resistance would even make arrangements with one another. For example, there would be a six-hour ceasefire and one group would tell the other “okay, it’s your turn. Go in there and start digging.” Then: “we’ll pay you so much money if you don’t shell the area so we can dig.” It was bizarre, and very much everyone for themselves.

Q: When someone finds a piece they want to sell, where does it get smuggled to?

After the war started and the security situation broke down, the northern border with Turkey became a new market for antiquities. Before then, it was basically only the Kurds who ran their stuff through Turkey.

By 2014-2015, the Turks started to close down and secure the border, so it’s getting increasingly hard to move things that way. At the same time, the issues at the Lebanese border had, essentially, sorted themselves out, so you see the antiquities trade sort of moving back to its traditional, pre-conflict route. 

But now, individual groups in these areas are able to cut their own deals for smuggling artifacts—completely bypassing the state. So, today, the government can say what it likes but at the end of the day it’s the local people on the ground—regime or otherwise—who are cutting these deals and moving their goods. So I think you’ll find that there’s a lot more moving out of Lebanon these days since the Turks have closed down their borders.

Q: When you hear about people making good incomes for treasure hunting, do you fault them?

No, we call this subsistence looting. There are very well-established looting networks—those people you’ll never get a chance to talk to. They’ve been doing it for a long time and they’re professionals.

But then there’s a whole new crop of opportunist, subsistence-type looters.  Those are the guys you want to get.  They’re not doing it because they were born to do it or their father or grandfather did it—they’re doing it because it’s an easy way to make money.  If you provide them with alternative employment, they’ll do something else.

So when I come with one of my projects, I say “Hey, instead of going out every day with your little metal detector hoping you’ll find some piece here or there, why don’t you come work on a project?”

“You’ll feel better about it and you’ll get a similar amount of money. Maybe not 500 bucks, but two or three hundred a month.”

And they do it. So that’s one of the ways, one of the positive benefits of these projects. They don’t take a lot of money. I can give a lot of people employment and protect an entire museum for six to 11 weeks on less than five thousand dollars. And that’s with a crew of over 10 people.

You can do a lot with very little. 

Justin Clark

Justin studied Arabic at Western Michigan University. He continued his studies at Bethlehem University in the West Bank and the Qasid Institute in Jordan. Justin's work and studies have taken him to Jordan, the West Bank, Egypt and Greece.