The remains of Bamiyan Buddhas. Image courtesy of Flickr user Hadi Zaher

As ISIS swept into the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra, it sought to locate an 81-year-old archaeologist named Khaled Al Assad. Since 1963, Al Assad had worked on behalf of Palmyra’s ancient shrines, eventually rising to become the chief of the city’s antiquities. After capturing Al Assad, ISIS spent weeks interrogating him about hidden treasures. Khaled Al Assad refused and was publicly executed, becoming immortalized as the protector of Palmyra’s cultural heritage.

The fall of Palmyra highlights an alarming reality. Each year, many of the world’s most precious cultural artifacts are looted and plundered. Looting is an expansive industry, as artifacts originating from economically depressed or war-torn countries are funneled into some of the world’s most posh environments. Demand is high with traffickers, art dealers, and armed forces all playing key roles. The following is a wide-ranging exploration of contemporary looting—who loots, why they loot, and where the loot ends up.

From Raqqa to Syria’s Aleppo, the countryside was plundered of ancient relics and artifacts. The archaeological site of Nimrud was destroyed.

In February 2015, ISIS released videos where its members use sledgehammers and drills to topple ancient statues from the famed Mosul Museum. By now, the Islamic State had swept through much of Western Iraq and Eastern Syria. Along with newly gained political territory, there were economic triumphs. New oil fields. A larger tax paying population. There were also cultural conquests. From Raqqa to Syria’s Aleppo, the countryside was plundered of ancient relics and artifacts. The archaeological site of Nimrud was destroyed. Prophet Jonah’s temple was dismantled. Khaled Al Assad’s Palmyra fell. ISIS’s goal is to establish a caliphate across the Middle East and this destruction was in part propaganda to demonstrate the group’s desire to rid their new lands of the symbols of pre-Islamic infidels.

Much of the world had already denounced ISIS. The destruction to Iraqi and Syrian historical marvels provided more reason for condemnation. In explaining the transition from destruction to looting, archeologist Mark Altaweel tells us, “What cannot be looted is plundered.” Soon, there were reports of Syrian antiquities making their way to the West. This emboldened Western law enforcement agencies, which had been searching for a direct connection between looted antiquities and terror financing. In May 2015, US Special Forces raided a Tunisian ISIS leader named Abu Sayyaf in Eastern Syria’s Dier Ezzor. The US, while claiming Abu Sayyaf was key in ISIS’s “illicit oil, gas, and financial operations,” also recovered an antiquities stash which provided evidence of, “looting at archaeological sites in Syria and Iraq, theft from regional museums, and the stockpiling of these spoils for likely sale on the international market.” For the West, the connection between the sale of Iraqi and Syrian antiquities and terror was made.

Nevertheless, ISIS isn’t the only group sanctioning this trade. There’s evidence of looting and destruction in territories held by most participants in the Syrian conflict, including other rebel groups and Bashar Al-Assad’s government forces. Nor is the looting of antiquities limited to the Syrian War theatre. Political upheaval has historically given opportunity to the plunder and looting of cultural treasures. In 2001, the Bamiyan Buddhas were famously destroyed at the orders of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar. The sculptures, the largest standing Buddhas in the world, were carved into Afghanistan’s Hindu Kush Mountains in the 6-7th century AD. The Buddhas stood atop the Silk Road and merchants, travelers and invaders would often wander past. Occasionally, there would be full-fledged attacks, including when the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb decided to try his luck with a late seventeenth century assault. All failed until the Taliban packed the statues with dynamite and blasted them off the mountainside. Similarly, as the Iraq War began, Baghdad’s National Museum, perhaps the greatest historical repository for Middle Eastern artifacts, was a predictably easy target for looters. As Saddam’s government was wiped away, critics lambasted the Bush administration for allowing US forces to protect the Iraqi Oil Ministry while the nearby Museum was ransacked clean of some of the world’s most ancient artifacts.

In September 2014, eight months before the raid on Abu Sayyaf, US Secretary of State John Kerry gave a speech at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. He highlighted the destruction to Syrian and Iraqi treasures, calling it “savage, inexplicable, valueless barbarism.” The Met is one of the most important museums in the world and Kerry’s speech preceded the opening of an exhibition which traced the spread of the ancient Assyrian Empire. The Assyrians had forged a fierce warpath outwards from modern day Iraq, and in the process, constructed vast monuments marking their triumphs. Since then, a different warpath—this time of plunder, uprooted many of these creations. While their relics in places such as Nineveh and Nimrud have been on the recent receiving end of ISIS’s wrecking balls, others like much of this exhibit entered the world’s museums long ago.

As we began investigating antiquities, we quickly learned that there are conflicting reports of the actual value of ISIS related looting and even allegations that much is overblown for politically convenient purposes. While trafficking from Iraq and Syria is shrouded in mystery, we started following the larger global antiquities trade. In order to begin looking at the ways artifacts get trafficked, we had to discover where demand originates.

While Kapoor was off enthralling the world’s elite, his network of local hands were sacking Tamil Nadu villages of their relics.

A few years before Kerry’s speech, the Met held another reception, this time for an antiquities dealer named Subhash Kapoor. The New York Times described the 2009 occasion, “The thirty or so guests enjoying spring rolls and white wine were gathered in a small third-floor gallery at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to celebrate Subhash Kapoor, a convivial Manhattan art dealer who had donated fifty-eight miniature drawings of Indian aristocrats, deities and beasts.” At the time of his Met Reception, he was being investigated by an alphabet soup of international agencies. In 2007, Indian authorities had alerted Homeland Security about a shipment set to arrive in America. They were suspicious of Kapoor’s business practices and believed he was brokering the sale of stolen artifacts from India. US authorities located the shipment and found crates of improperly marked Indian idols. While Kapoor was off enthralling the world’s elite, his network of local hands were sacking Tamil Nadu villages of their relics. These would then be trafficked through a vast network until eventually their original origin was such a mystery that they could easily be sold to museums and private collectors. An investigation was launched into Kapoor and he was finally arrested in 2011 after an Interpol flag at Frankfurt Airport. Authorities now believe Kapoor was the center of an international smuggling operation worth over a $100 million dollars.

So, antiquities are trafficked daily and the trade is massive. How does an artifact go from origin point to eventual recipient? There exists an active community of archaeologists and investigators who document and follow these networks. Dr. Donna Yates guides us through a sample model:

1. “You have local people on the ground who loot a site or a temple. These people are often employed at a comparatively low rate by an intermediary who has requested a particular type of object.

2. The intermediary receives the stolen goods and packages them for shipment abroad, often declaring them on customs documents as something they are not (handicrafts, garden furniture).

3. The pieces are sent through one or more transit ports before they reach their final destination. These ports are known for having lax security and, as the artifacts pass through, they pick up more paperwork…they start to look more legitimate.

4. Finally the objects make it to their destination, usually to the person who is planning on converting these items to the elite market. This person knows full well that the pieces are illicit or illegal (they may have even hired the local intermediary), but they have the sort of high end connections to pass these things into the market under the guise of legitimacy. They may make up false paperwork or absurd backstories to do so. And there you go.”

With high demand, porous global legislation and lax security, it’s clear how a dealer such as Kapoor was able to run a giant trafficking operation. While looting under the domain of international pariahs such as ISIS or unscrupulous dealers such as Kapoor was seemingly notorious, we then began hearing about state-led looting, which seemed far more secretive.

A looter has immense power. Not only can they dictate the future of an artifact, they can subvert its past histories.

Following the June 1984 attack on Amritsar’s Golden Temple, Indian security forces sacked and burned the Sikh Reference Library to the ground. The sacking, an ambitious channeling of Attila’s stroll through Rome, occurred after the actual military operation had ceased. More than three centuries of cultural treasures, marking the history of the Sikh people were either destroyed or taken. For the state’s security forces, this wasn’t a simple looting. The items of the Sikh Reference Library would never be siphoned off to a private collector like Kapoor or make their way into an auction house like Christie’s or Sotheby’s. The artifacts included edicts which signaled claims to Sikh nationhood and sovereignty. The sacking of the library was systematically planned—a population had rebelled, and the nation had decided that they needed to be corralled. It is symbolic that the artifacts of the Sikh Reference Library were ousted from the physical center of a rebellious people and thirty-one years later, are still held by the security forces sent to pacify that rebellion.

This is why ownership matters. A looter has immense power. Not only can they dictate the future of an artifact, they can subvert its past histories. Whereas a private collector showcases a Picasso or a Monet to demonstrate their cultural sophistication or economic opulence, a nation’s control over culture signifies its overt desire for compliance. By controlling past culture, they shape future identity.

During his speech at the Met, Secretary Kerry described the attack on the Tomb of Jonah, “When a local man saw its destruction, he said, ‘we cried for it with our blood.’” For these villagers, the connection was intimate. An idol to us is a God to others and worshipped accordingly. For the wrong invader, they are symbols which contest a version of history and need to be destroyed. To a complete outsider, these are all historical artifacts and on occasion, demonstrations of the heights of human ingenuity. For them, they must be preserved.

The entire world’s a stage for looting and a host of characters are ready to impose their visions of reality. Who owns a piece, where it’s located, and how it was obtained has historical consequences. If we express disdain at the destruction of our shared cultural heritage from the people Kerry terms “barbarians,” are we okay with knowing that some form of looting took place for us to view what we do at our favorite museums? How comfortable are we when nation states take it upon themselves to subvert these histories to mold desired identities?

Rattanamol Singh

Rattanamol Singh writes and creates tech. He recently founded Lighthouse, a journalism collective using literature and film to tell global narratives.

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