By Robert Swift
The Media Line 

ISIS looting and destroying antiquities in Syria


The systematic destruction of archaeological sites in Iraq and Syria by the Islamic State (ISIS) has appalled and infuriated but failed to motivate the international community to act to prevent the further eradication of the region’s heritage. With the demolition of parts of the ancient ruins of Palmyra in August, the group demonstrated once again its desire to eliminate any symbols, which do not conform to its fundamentalist interpretation of Sunni Islam. But according to experts, there is far more than ideology behind the defacement of artifacts.

The Islamic State controls territory in western Iraq and eastern Syria equivalent in size to Belgium, it exports oil, creates its own professionally produced propaganda, and in all regards projects the image of a legitimate state. ISIS supplements the income it makes from black market oil sales with taxes levied on the six million people under its control, ransoms from hostages, and the sale of looted antiquities. From its roots as an Al-Qa’ida offshoot intended to be its Iraqi franchise, ISIS has evolved into the free world’s greatest nightmare, profiting from the Syrian civil war to become the world’s richest terrorist organization.

In the eighteen months since the group swept to power, it has destroyed ancient sites at Palmyra and Nimrud, including churches, mosques, shrines, and temples from the ancient world.

Such destruction is part of a three-fold strategy according to Dr. Joris D. Kila, a researcher with the University of Vienna and a specialist in heritage studies in the context of armed conflicts. He told The Media Line that destruction of images is designed to demonstrate the group’s piety to their own audience, an attack against idolatry emulating the foregone practices of the Middle Ages. “What is new is that they first take away the stuff that they can sell,” Kila explained. “This is becoming “more important because the oil refineries are being bombed by the (US led) coalition,” and the price of oil has dropped.

Psychological warfare is the third aspect to the strategy of destruction: the eradication of minority groups’ cultural identities. According to Kila, by targeting the region’s non-Sunni heritage, the group is demonstrating to people such as the Druze and the Yazidis that there is no place for them in the Islamic State. This is no different than the systematic erasing of minorities carried out by the Nazi regime, he concluded.

A black market in smuggled antiquities thrived long before ISIS muscled in on the practice, but since ISIS entered the game the measure of profits and destruction associated with the criminal enterprise has increased to “industrial scale looting.”

“The problem is not the trade in illegal antiquities—the problem is laundering of looted items,” Dr. Eitan Klein, the deputy director of the Unit for the Prevention of Antiquities Robbery at the Israel Antiquities Authority, told The Media Line. According to Klein, by taking a looted object to a country with lax import-export regulations, a smuggler can acquire documentation that falsely demonstrates the object’s origins - essentially creating a false identity for the plundered artifact. This allows it to be sold to legitimate dealers and museums. “If it was laundered goods, it would be hard to tell where the antique came from,” Klein said.

In order to stem this trade—and therefore cut-off funding to groups like the Islamic State—governments and law enforcement agencies are obliged to cooperate and exchange information in real time. “It’s a game between dealers and countries,” Klein said, stressing that a unified front was required to fight the trade. “One country with loose regulation” is all that is needed to open the net, he warned.

But if the illicit profits from the trade are difficult to curb, technology has provided one solution to the Islamic State’s attempts to eradicate the region’s cultural heritage. Donald H. Sanders is a self-described digital archaeologist who is working with a team at Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to preserve sites threatened by ISIS. “By coincidence—we happened to be working on a couple of the sites in Iraq that ISIS decided to blow up—so it turns out that we probably have the only surviving digital copies,” Sanders told The Media Line.

By digitally capturing three dimensional renditions of historical sites, archeologists hope to preserve antiquities for future generations. “War, climate change or even too many tourists” can damage archeological sites, but through the use of a variety of new technologies archeologists are recording sites for posterity, according to Sanders. Recent improvements in the capabilities of drones, photo modeling and laser scanning—technologies, which did not exist five or ten years ago—have made this possible.

It is possible that in the near future all historical sites of significance will be recorded with their 3-D models held online for anybody to access. Although this would not prevent their destruction by groups with ISIS-like ideology it would preserve their memory. “That is coming and people are rushing to try make that a reality,” Sanders said, though the archaeologist pointed out that visiting a site in the flesh can never be truly replaced.

“What is really important, what should be a game changer, is the fact that groups like ISIS loot and sell cultural properties to finance their conflict,” Dr. Kila said. The Dutch academic, who served as army officer, argued that the military’s job is to end a conflict as quickly as possible. This includes the economic battle of cutting-off finances, which enable an enemy to continue fighting, a practical concern that governments should listen to, he argued.


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