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Race against the raiders of Syrian antiquities

Given the scale of the destruction and trafficking of Syrian antiquities, heritage authorities are trying to save the memory of a whole region
Souk el-Ahad antiquity shop in Beirut MEE/Chloé Domat)

BEIRUT – It may have taken place two years ago but Assad Seif remembers it as if it were yesterday. It happened in Ouzaï, a working-class neighbourhood in Beirut, on the airport road. “When I got out of the security forces' truck, I only had a few minutes to identify the archaeological items,” explains Seif, who was Lebanon's general director of antiquities at the time. The crowd was dense, the shop narrow, the merchandise eclectic. You can find everything in this seller's place, from objects made in China to contemporary items and Syrian statues on sale for 200,000 euros each.

“I picked up a piece of coal from the ground and started to mark crosses on stones,” Seif tells Middle East Eye. In 10 minutes he marked 80 items. Fourteen busts from the ancient city of Palmyra, capitals broken off the columns of Apamea and sacred Proto-Byzantine and Byzantine objects from Homs in Syria. The haul was worth several million euros.

Seif has led many such seizures. He is now an adviser to Lebanon's minister of culture and is responsible for tackling the trafficking of archaeological objects. Smuggling has reached unprecedented levels since the start of the war in neighbouring Syria.

A bust from the ancient city of Palmyra that was seized in Ouzaï, Beirut, by the team of Assad Seif, Lebanon's General Director of Antiquities (Lebanon's Antiquities Board)

'Aleppo is disappearing'

In Syria, as in Iraq, archaeological sites, places of worship and cultural heritage in the broad sense are under severe threat from fighting and illegal pillaging.

“We keep saying that such sites should not be scenes of clashes but it makes no difference,” regrets Maamoun Abdulkarim, Seif's Syrian counterpart. All he is left to do is record the damage. “Aleppo is disappearing. In Palmyra, the museum has been transformed into a prison court and they [Islamic State fighters] are even going to install a bakery there. All the sites in the Euphrates valley are under threat.”

The spectacular destruction that gained widespread media coverage in fact masks large-scale antiquities smuggling, as armed groups only destroy what they cannot carry away. The rest, which accounts for the majority of antiquities, is sold on the black market either by fighters to fund their military campaigns or by local populations eager to build a nest egg for when the war ends. In the case of the latter, the armed groups allow the populations to do it but apply a tax.  

“We know with certainty that the items are not destroyed, they are rather pillaged to be sold later,” explains Renata Kaminker, programme coordinator of the International Council of Museums (ICOM), an NGO that has set up an emergency red list of Syrian cultural objects at risk to help the authorities recognise quickly the types of objects liable to be exported and sold illegally.

“They are not sold immediately but definitely will be within 10 to 15 years when people have 'forgotten' what is currently happening.”

Stemming the flow

Faced with a phenomenon that could already have reached the scale of the trafficking during World War II, Syria and neighbouring countries are rallying together. “We hold meetings with [local] populations,” Abdulkarim tells MEE. “We still have 2,500 civil servants responsible for looking after heritage in the various regions of the country. Some residents and site custodians in remote regions send me photos on WhatsApp on a daily basis.”

“30,000 objects have been removed from Deir Ez-Zor and 24,000 from Aleppo,” he says. “We carried them in military airplanes and convoys watched by the army before putting them in a safe place in Damascus, where we now have nearly 300,000 items.” Upon their arrival in the Syrian capital, archaeological objects are scrupulously photographed.

But prevention is not enough. To stamp out trafficking, it is necessary to also be able to stop objects from reaching buyers, most of whom are in the West. To achieve this, coordination with countries around Syria is essential. “Lebanon is a real ally,” says Abdulkarim.

Artefacts seized in Ouzaï by Lebanon's General Antiquities Board (Antiquities Board of Lebanon)

The Lebanese ally

Lebanese security forces are particularly vigilant. Maybe because they experienced pillaging during the civil war that ravaged the country between 1975 and 1990. At the borders and in ports and airports, customs officers keep a close watch, while units from domestic security forces carry out, in coordination with Interpol, inspections at potential points of sale: the antiquities markets in Basta, Souk el-Ahad, Jnah and Ouzaï.

The procedure is well established: when a person is arrested for illegally trafficking cultural property, the objects are immediately confiscated and sent to the Antiquities Board; the trafficker is then questioned to find out where the objects come from and the information is then cross-referenced with the conclusions of Seif's experts.

If the objects come from Syria, the Antiquities Board contacts Abdulkarim's teams so that they can dispatch an expert to Beirut. The objects are then taken back to Syria if so requested by the country. The traffickers, meanwhile, face a prison sentence ranging from one month to three years, as well as a fine.  

The method has shown its worth in the narrow alleys of Souk el-Ahad. Tucked behind a succession of stores selling clothes, kitchen supplies and electrical appliances are 10 antiquity shops. There are no antique plates on display here, nor Roman coins or Mesopotamian sculptures – Syrian objects have become taboo.

“You mean stolen things?” replies the trader Nagi Freiha when we ask him whether Syrian antiquities are available in the market. “No one would dare sell them here, it's far too risky.”

A trader in Souk el-Ahad in Beirut (MEE/Chloé Domat)

'A lot of things elude us'

“A lot of things elude us, that's for sure,” says Seif. There are traders who camouflage their objects in the back of their shops, transactions take place between individuals far from watchful eyes and fake objects are seized – because the hike in prices for Syrian antiquities has also attracted counterfeiters into the business. The Antiquities Board reckons that around 50 percent of seized items turn out, after expert appraisal, to be mere vulgar copies.   

The former director believes that, paradoxically, the widespread coverage that trafficking gets makes it difficult to control because it actually entices more and more people into it. “People learn from the television that they can do it,” says Seif. “People see the prices and then say 'That's it guys, tomorrow morning we're getting out the pickaxes.'” 

The Syrians, meanwhile, deplore the reluctant cooperation from some border countries. “We know that nearly 2,000 items have been intercepted by Turkish authorities but they do not return them to us,” claims Abdulkarim. “We don't have any collaboration with Jordanian authorities either and for the Iraqis their situation is worse than ours.”

And then there is the government of Israel, which has not ratified the 1970 UNESCO Convention banning the illegal import, export and transfer of cultural property, mainly due to its own activities in the occupied Palestinian territories.

Digital solutions

While it is difficult to control trafficking, there are digital techniques that make it possible to keep a copy or at least a trace of archaeological objects at risk. Thanks to triple scanning – photographic, photogrammetric and laser – museums and site custodians can make digital copies of heritage artefacts.

That is what Lebanon did in the wake of the bombardments of the 2006 war with Israel. Thanks to a UNESCO donation to help with preserving cultural heritage, the country scanned the whole site of the Baalbek ruins in the northern Bekaa valley.

“The capitals and sculpted parts were scanned with 4mm resolution and what we may call 'normal' architectural features were scanned with 14mm resolution,” recalls Seif. “We now have a full model that we can use if this building were to be destroyed one day. This is a preservation technique, but the authentic object remains irreplaceable.”

Other international initiatives pursue the same goal. The Iraqi-American artist Morehshin Allahyari stood out by making 3D prints of statuettes destroyed in Iraq by the Islamic State, while in London, Art Recovery Group Ltd has developed a database for tracing trafficked objects.

“It's a tool aimed at reducing trafficking and making art market operators aware of the real origin of the works that come into their hands,” says Jérome Hasler, the company's communications manager. “For Syria, we are trying to compile a directory of all museum pieces and compare them to databases of international sales to see whether there are any discrepancies.”

That may seem like a lot of expenditure just on saving stones at a time when the fighting in Syria has resulted in more than 200,000 deaths and millions of refugees. In Damascus, Abdulkarim defends the endeavour: "I know some people accuse us of being more interested in heritage than humanitarianism, but that is my mission. It's about saving memory."

Lilia Blaise contributed to this report.

The article was translated by STiiL agency and originally published on Middle East Eye’s French page on 5 October 2015

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