The lands that are now Syria and Iraq were home to some of humanity’s first complex, sedentary civilizations—the Sumerians, Assyrians, and Babylonians among them. Ruins of ancient cities dot the landscape and modern cities are often palimpsests, built on the layered remains of prior ones. Millennia of societies have left behind a legacy wrought in stone, clay, glass, and bronze, much of it hidden beneath the soil, and some of it uncovered and housed in museums.
But four decades of conflict in Iraq and eight years of war in Syria have ravaged that heritage. Looters have dug up scores of ancient artifacts and stolen others from museums to sell into a lucrative global antiquities market. After its inception, the Islamic State (ISIS) led the devastation, destroying ancient sites and excavating others.
“We’re faced with the largest-scale mass destruction of cultural heritage since the Second World War,” France Desmarais of the International Council of Museums told the New York Times in 2016. Maamoun Abdulkarim, Syria’s antiquities director, argued that these sites and artifacts have value beyond Syria: “It’s for you also—for American people, for European people, for Japanese people. It’s all your heritage.”
According to one antiquities expert, an estimated 200,000 to 500,000 artifacts have been looted in Iraq since conflicts broke out there in the 1990s.
In war, cultural heritage often becomes collateral damage. According to one antiquities expert, an estimated 200,000 to 500,000 artifacts have been looted in Iraq since conflicts broke out there in the 1990s. The looting reached an industrial scale after the 2003 U.S. invasion.
In one case, looters—including American soldiers—raided Baghdad’s Iraq Museum over the course of 36 hours and stole nearly 14,000 artifacts. Fleeing Iraqi soldiers had left the doors open. Some of the items have since been recovered (one of the most valuable artifacts was found in an Iraqi cesspit).
A Global Network
Looters homed in on the most valuable items, including pottery, inscribed stone tablets, sculptures, and weapons. These objects are smuggled out of the country into an international network of stolen cultural heritage to wealthy collectors and museums around the world.
Middlemen in Turkey, Lebanon, Iran, and Bulgaria forward artifacts to Emirati, Israeli, and European dealers. Some items can fetch upwards of $1 million. They have also been used to bribe border patrols or traded for weapons. A third century Syrian Bible was sold for $11,000 and smuggled through Turkey to Russia, hidden in a carful of vegetables.
When an artifact reaches Europe, it can be passed between dealers and conservators, or tax-free storage areas, acquiring a trail of paperwork that masks its origins and feigns legitimacy. Such items can raise large sums in auctions in London and New York. Smaller, undocumented items can still be sold in antique shops.
Smugglers target their wares toward wealthy customers in Germany, the UK, France, Switzerland, and the U.S., relying on buyers willing to not ask too many questions, or who are simply unaware that their purchases may be funding war.
In one high-profile case, the American craft store chain Hobby Lobby purchased thousands of ancient artifacts, collectively worth over $1.5 million, that had been smuggled out of Iraq in 2010 and 2011. A U.S. court fined the company $3 million and repatriated the artifacts.
Few artifacts have been directly traced to ISIS or other illegal sources, but U.S. trade data from 2015 showed a 23 percent increase in the importation of antiquities from the Levant since ISIS began to gain territory. In 2015, the UN banned the trade of artifacts removed from Syria and Iraq during wartime, but enforcement is near impossible.
ISIS Capitalized on Antiquities
Though its financing relied mostly on oil sales, theft, taxation, ransoms, and donations, ISIS made millions, if not billions, of dollars from the trade of ancient artifacts. With its profits, ISIS bought weapons and funded terrorist attacks abroad.
Unlike other income streams, antiquities offered “high mark-ups, global demand, a low likelihood for military disruption, and a willing pool of civilians who supply labor for the trade.” Locals in ISIS-held areas, desperate for a means of survival, dug up and sold artifacts, from which the group took a 20 percent tax.
Soon, ISIS began contracting its own excavators and archaeologists and even had its own antiquities director, who contacted dealers to find Western buyers. Historical sites like the ancient Greek-Roman city Dura-Europos were excavated and sold off almost entirely.
ISIS’s sale of small, valuable antiquities was strategically paired with its complete destruction of large, globally-recognized ones
ISIS’s sale of small, valuable antiquities was strategically paired with its complete destruction of large, globally-recognized ones. Driven by its radical interpretation of Islam, the group was prolific in its mission to “delete” any trace of pre-Islamic or non-Islamic culture. Aware of the visibility of these sites, they published videos of their destruction as propaganda and recruitment tools.
Militants raided museums, razed countless ancient monuments and demolished statues and portraits, which they considered forbidden. ISIS blew up the ruins of the 3,000-year-old Assyrian cities of Nimrud and Nineveh, seats of one of the world’s first empires. In the renowned ancient city of Palmyra, militants exploded Roman arches and 2,000-year-old pre-Islamic temples, and smashed statues with sledgehammers.
Now that ISIS no longer controls any physical territory, international teams are trying to rebuild the tattered remnants of Iraq and Syria’s ancient history. Iraq and the EU recently held a workshop in Baghdad to coordinate efforts to track down artifacts and outline smuggling routes. Archaeologists took 3-D scans of Nimrud in 2017 after ISIS was expelled in order to identify what had been looted.
Sometimes stolen artifacts declare their origins. Engravings on an ancient Babylonian stone document intercepted at Heathrow Airport told that it came from southern Iraq. Likewise, a collection of Iraqi antiquities was returned in 2018 after their cuneiform inscriptions revealed their origins in ancient Sumerian Girsu, one of the world’s oldest cities.
In Girsu, the British Museum is teaming with locals to reconstruct the oldest bridge in existence, built 4,000 years ago and severely damaged by ISIS. The museum described the effort as “a potent symbol for a nation emerging from decades of war.”
Foreign museums and governments have begun repatriating more seized objects, now that parts of Syria and Iraq are stable enough to protect them. Since Baghdad’s National Museum has been restored and reopened to the public, the U.S. and UK have returned many artifacts to its halls.
Bruno Deslandes, a UNESCO architect, warned that even if “a site is liberated [from ISIS], it doesn’t mean the looting has finished.”
Repatriations are often framed as symbols of victory. However, Bruno Deslandes, a UNESCO architect, warned that even if “a site is liberated [from ISIS], it doesn’t mean the looting has finished.” ISIS was not alone in its destruction. Combat between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and opposition militias severely damaged the medieval castles, mosques, and ancient sites that were used as fortresses. All sides of the Syrian civil war have also engaged in looting and selling antiquities.
Although ISIS’s power has waned, local and international authorities and communities will need to stay vigilant if Iraq and Syria’s ancient histories are to survive. Indeed, the looting of such treasures is a crime against our common culture as a species, our human heritage, and must be preserved for future generations at all cost.