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How Antiquities Have Been Weaponized in the Struggle to Preserve Culture

Surveying the reporting on Syrian antiquities over the last six years reveals a parade of errors, but it is noteworthy that most, if not all, of the errors cut in the same way: to inflate the threat ISIS poses to cultural heritage while ignoring the threat posed by other armed groups.

Krak des Chavaliers under fire (image courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — It is a cool day in early spring of March 2016. Several men, some of them wearing masks, are dismantling what appears to be a medieval building in Al Rafid, a village near Quneitra in southwestern Syria. Boys are helping too, or at least playing in the rubble. We might be tempted to think we are watching ISIS members destroying a piece of cultural heritage. But no — according to the SMART news agency, this is actually a video of local villagers looking for material to rebuild their homes.

By now, the war in Syria has raged for more than six years. We have seen death on a massive scale and a heartbreaking refugee crisis, as well as serious threats to monuments and artifacts. Since early 2014, ISIS has been presented in news reports as the greatest threat not just to human life but also to cultural heritage in Syria. But cases like Al Rafid point to something else: the reality that looting of and damage to antiquities take many forms. And when we compare that reality to its portrayal in media outlets over the course of the war, we find that most reporting has ignored — or hidden — several basic facts.

  1. ISIS is not responsible for the majority of antiquities looting in Syria.

By early 2013, experts were already pointing out that Assad’s forces, rebels, and jihadist groups were all involved in antiquities looting, before ISIS was in control of much territory. A study of satellite images of six select sites by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), published in December 2014, showed significant looting by ISIS by this time, but also significant looting in areas controlled by other groups (though this was not emphasized by the press release or subsequent news reports). The most detailed study was published by the Cultural Heritage Initiatives (formerly the Syrian Heritage Initiative) of the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR CHI) in September 2015, when ISIS was close to its largest extent in Syria. The study determined that areas held by ISIS, Syrian government forces, Kurdish YPG, and other rebel groups all experienced significant looting of antiquities. More surprisingly, the study concluded that only 21.4% of the sites evaluated in ISIS-controlled territory had been looted, which was lower than percentages for YPG and Syrian opposition groups.

Overwhelmingly, however, news stories have focused (and continue to focus) on ISIS looting. We read several features on ISIS looters and trafficking. But no one to my knowledge has published “The Men Who Loot for Al Qaeda” (or Assad, or the Free Syrian Army). Headlines highlight ISIS even when stories include general warnings about looting and destruction in the Syrian Civil War: for example, “‘Broken System’ Allows ISIS to Profit From Looted Antiquities” (New York Times, Jan 9, 2016). Business Insider then took a warning about looting and destruction in general from this article (“We’re faced with the largest-scale mass destruction of cultural heritage since the Second World War”) and turned it, out of context, into a headline warning about ISIS: “ISIS’ looting of the Middle East is ‘the largest-scale mass destruction of cultural heritage since’ WWII” (January 12, 2016). ISIS is said to have dug up objects that appeared on the antiquities market before ISIS existed. Several stories link destructive looting at the major classical period site of Apamea to ISIS. ISIS has never been present at Apamea. At Palmyra, it is clear that Assad’s forces, rebel groups, and ISIS have all looted antiquities, but non-ISIS actions have been mostly ignored. Stories attempt to associate pre-ISIS looting at Palmyra with ISIS.

Everything becomes linked to ISIS.

  1. Most estimates of the amount of money ISIS has made from antiquities looting are vastly exaggerated.

Several articles have cited figures of $100 million-plus, or even over $100 million a year. We read sensational claims of antiquities trafficking making up 30–50% of ISIS’s assets, of antiquities trafficking as the second or third biggest source of income for ISIS, of ISIS making $36 million from antiquities looting in one region of Syria alone (al Nabuk). But these claims are made, often anonymously, without any evidence provided; or by including all revenues from extraction (like mining and oil drilling); or based on sources that actually discuss Al Qaeda’s looting (spoils of war, not antiquities looting) in Iraq from 2005–2008; or based on the guessed upper limit for the worldwide antiquities trade from a 1990 UNESCO document, with no evidence provided. The claim of $100 million was already circulating — and being questioned — in 2014, and we have no new information suggesting such a high number since then.

In fact, researchers have very little data on ISIS’s revenues from antiquities looting. This paucity of information makes it difficult if not impossible to come to even a rough estimate. As far as I know, the only serious attempt to determine ISIS revenues from antiquities looting was made by ancient Near East historian Christopher Jones in early 2016. Jones’s analysis is based on documents captured by American special forces near Deir ez-Zor in May 2015. There has been some suspicion that these receipts are not genuine; but, assuming they are authentic, Jones’s work suggests that only about 0.5% of ISIS’s revenues in the Deir ez-Zor region around that time came from antiquities. More generally, he estimated from available data that (as of January 2016) ISIS had made “a few million dollars” total from antiquities.

Despite the transparent problems, the claim that ISIS has made $100 million or more in revenues is a zombie claim that will not die. It was revived this summer by the Wall Street Journal. And, once the Wall Street Journal laundered it, it was repeated by Newsweek (as a headline claim) and the Times of London.

  1. Most of the objects coming out of Syria are forgeries.

This has been known for years: in early 2015, BBC journalist Simon Cox conducted an interview with Assaad Seif, then acting general director and head of the Scientific Departments at the Directorate General of Antiquities in Lebanon, about Syrian artifacts seized in Lebanon. While Seif talked about how hundreds of authentic items had been seized, some of great value, he also emphasized that most of the seized artifacts are forgeries, and that they come from forgery workshops in Syria that were already known before the war. A year and half later, Maamoun Abdulkarim (head of the Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums in Syria) gave an interview in which he indicated that 70% of the artifacts seized in Syria and Lebanon are fake. Seif and Abdulkarim’s conclusions are supported by inspection of published photographs of seized artifacts. These routinely include some obviously forged items. Similarly, in stories of “The Men Who Loot for ISIS” genre, the supposed dealers or middlemen show the journalists objects that they are trying to sell. Those objects appearing in accompanying photographs are generally either fakes, or worthless items, like heavily corroded coins.

Dr Assaad Seif, head of excavations at the Directorate General of Antiquities in an interview with the BBC’s Simon Cox (screenshot by the author)

While the predominance of forged items has been discussed by experts for years, news outlets have routinely ignored it. Cox’s BBC story included only Seif’s discussion of authentic antiquities, not his discussion of forgeries. After Abdulkarim’s interview, the topic of fakes did receive more attention. But this information was turned by some news outlets into misleading headlines about how “ISIS hoodwinks collectors with fake Syrian artifacts.” Again, almost everything is linked to ISIS.

  1. Much if not most antiquity destruction in Syria has been conducted by groups other than ISIS.

ISIS has, without a doubt, destroyed or damaged many monuments and artifacts. We have sensationalist videos of some cases of destruction, and we know of many, many more instances that were not videotaped. Even so, discussion of the destructive acts has been distorted. First, most reports obscure the nature of ISIS’s targets. While the widespread Western focus on the destruction of structures from sites known from classical and biblical texts (like Palmyra, or Nineveh in Iraq) might suggest that they are the main focus of ISIS’s iconoclasm, most of the monuments that ISIS has destroyed are Islamic shrines and graves.

Second, despite media emphasis on ISIS’s intentional destruction for iconoclastic reasons, other factors have caused large amounts of damage. Many structures — including some of the most significant and iconic monuments of Syria, such as the Great Mosque of Aleppo and the Krak des Chevaliers (a Crusader castle) — have been seriously damaged by combat between Assad’s forces and rebels groups, often before the rise of ISIS. Sites have been seriously damaged by other wartime activities too, including the construction of defensive positions, and the use of ruins for shelter and building material. ISIS does appear to be responsible for the overwhelming majority of cases of destruction for religious reasons in the Syrian war. But even here, they are not the only jihadist group responsible.

  1. Syria is only one of many countries where massive looting and damage to antiquities are happening in wartime.

Threats to the heritage of Syria and Iraq have received massive amounts of media attention, but other countries’ heritage is also suffering considerable damage from current wars. Yemen’s historic architecture has been repeatedly hit by Saudi bombing. Looting and destruction have been rampant in Libya since the overthrow of Qaddafi. There has been some attention paid to the 2012 case of iconoclastic destruction of a medieval shrine in Timbuktu, brought before the International Criminal Court (ICC). But these are just recent cases from West Asia and North Africa. Conflict damaged antiquities — sites, monuments, and artifacts harmed during war — is a worldwide phenomenon that is regularly ignored.

  1. Most threats to antiquities don’t come from war at all but from everyday activities.

These activities include normal urban expansion, agriculture (especially plowing fields), and even simple neglect. The damage caused by construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline is a familiar and vivid example, but just one among many. Looting is another routine activity, often unconnected with war. And — as has happened for thousands of years — sites are damaged by people reusing old buildings and monuments as construction material.

* * *

Surveying the reporting on Syrian antiquities over the last six years reveals a parade of errors. But it is noteworthy that most if not all of the errors cut in the same way — to inflate the threat ISIS poses to cultural heritage while ignoring the threat posed by all other armed groups in Syria. Experts have spent years trying to inform journalists of many of the same points I have raised above. They have been largely ignored. According to one expert on antiquities trafficking who wrote on this issue in early 2016:

Editors want to hear about Daesh making millions of dollars from the trade, they do not want to hear that its financial accounting is difficult to know, or that other combatant groups might be profiting too.

What explains this state of affairs?

For one thing, ISIS sells. ISIS has become such a successful bogeyman — far beyond the already significant threat to human life and culture that they pose — that their mere presence in a headline means papers sold and links clicked. After so many years of emphasizing this threat, some media members may naturally assume any claim about it to be true.

But why was ISIS made into a bogeyman in the first place? Here we cannot avoid the fact that it was the threat of ISIS that was used to justify Western military intervention in Syria. We know that ISIS has used cultural heritage as a weapon (having seen its propaganda videos), but other countries, like Russia and the US, use it too. James Peck has written at length about the use of human rights as a weapon of imperialism over the last few decades. Just as the U.S. government has used concern for human rights as justification for military action, so it has appeared to use concern for antiquities to galvanize support for its intervention in the Syrian war. Just as threats to the Yazidis of Sinjar were used to justify the bombing of Syria, so too was the threat ISIS posed to Syria’s cultural heritage.

Before 2014, news stories about threats to Syria’s cultural heritage generally ignored ISIS (just as other aspects of their violence were ignored) — even though they were already damaging sites and destroying monuments. This suddenly changed in 2014, as media outlets then focused on ISIS (while downplaying threats posed by other groups). In addition to correct reports, some false claims of sites destroyed by ISIS were circulated. In one case, claims of ISIS’s destruction of Nabi Yunis (the shrine of the prophet Jonah) in Mosul were reported two weeks before the shrine was eventually destroyed. The images purported to show ISIS’s earlier destruction of the site turned out to be their destruction of a tomb in Raqqa, Syria in 2013, a destruction that had previously been ignored by news outlets. News stories on antiquities looting in Syria gradually increased over 2013 and early 2014. But there appears to have been a major spike in this reporting in September 2014, the same month that the U.S. began its airstrike campaign against ISIS in Syria. Cultural heritage was enlisted in the war against ISIS. The war must be sold.

In enlisting cultural heritage, governments’ use of archaeologists and other scholars is a notable feature. At the extreme, this has included an archaeologist’s op-ed for the Military Times on how U.S. airstrikes are designed to minimize damage to cultural heritage (alongside their main goal of “liberating and protecting civilians”). Meanwhile, ASOR CHI has done invaluable work, some of which I have cited above, but it is also funded by the U.S. State Department — receiving several hundred thousand dollars per year. ASOR CHI’s purview includes Syria, Iraq, and Libya, all of which have seen U.S. military strikes targeting ISIS since 2014. But other countries in West Asia whose heritage is also threatened have been ignored — notably Yemen, where damage to sites and monuments has been caused mostly by Saudi Arabia, a US ally. Then Secretary of State, John Kerry referred to the Syrian Heritage Initiative (ASOR CHI’s precursor) as “literally the gold standard” for heritage protection in a speech at the Metropolitan Museum of Art just hours before the missile campaign against members of the Islamic State began. Kerry used that speech, at the opening of the Met’s exhibition Assyria to Iberia at the Dawn of the Classical Age, to argue in favor of intervention in Syria.

The speech is striking for its emphasis on the threat to cultural heritage over the threat to human lives. But it is also striking for repeating some of the false and misleading claims of many news outlets — largely ignoring the significant threat to heritage posed by groups other than ISIS, associating the looting of Apamea with ISIS, explicitly to argue for a military campaign.

Meanwhile, political measures to address threats to cultural heritage are focused primarily on antiquities looting as a source of funding for terrorism. This is a problem for several reasons. Terrorism is a heavily loaded word, used inconsistently to refer to enemy groups of the moment, rather than according to any neutral standard (what techniques the groups use, whether they target civilians). As a result, national legislation and UN resolutions against trafficking in antiquities from Syria have focused exclusively on targeting funding for ISIS and (to a lesser extent) Al Qaeda and its affiliates. They do not address the many other groups looting and damaging cultural heritage in Syria. Blanket bans on importing antiquities from Syria would affect these other groups as well, but political solutions have avoided mentioning them or targeting them specifically. Also, since legislation is focused solely on Syria and Iraq, the broad and serious problem of antiquities being used to fund conflicts worldwide is barely addressed. And since most threats to cultural heritage lie outside armed conflict, these are ignored altogether.

Those of us who work on cultural heritage must stop and ask ourselves how we want to interact with this system, one that uses cultural heritage as a weapon while ignoring most threats to it by design. Whatever we decide, we cannot be naive about our role. Nor can we be naive about the role of news media in failing to inform us all about what is happening in Syria.

Acknowledgments: This piece draws heavily on the work of many experts on cultural heritage and conflict antiquities, including Paul Barford, Morag Kersel, Jason Felch, Stephennie Mulder, Dorothy King, and especially Sam Hardy and Christopher Jones. Much of the analysis of news coverage is a synthesis of their work, as attested by the links. It would have been impossible to write this piece without them. But, more than usual, I must emphasize that the conclusions in this piece as well as any errors are my own.

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