Representatives of ten countries gathered at a conference in Cairo this week to agree on steps to protect the region’s cultural heritage, including by setting up a high-level task force to coordinate efforts against the smuggling of cultural objects and working with governments and police authorities worldwide.
The conference, “Cultural Property under Threat: the Cultural, Economic and Security Impact of Antiquities Theft in the Middle East,” was held in Cairo on 13-14 May. It brought together representatives of Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and the UAE. Also present were the director-general of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, and representatives of national and international NGOs.
At the end of the conference, Minister of Antiquities Mamdouh Eldamaty announced the Cairo Declaration, committing those attending to take steps against the looting and international trafficking of antiquities from the region, the proceeds of which have been used to fund the activities of terrorist groups such as Islamic State (IS) and Al-Nusra Front.
Following a meeting with the secretary-general of the Arab League, Nabil Al-Arabi, Bokova said that regional coordination could assist in protecting the region’s heritage from looting or attack. “We see clearly that sustainable responses will come from regional cooperation amongst all the countries in the Arab region,” she said.
The conference came in response to growing concerns that the region’s ancient and more modern heritage is under threat of being lost forever as a result of criminal activities and the insecurity and political instability that have spread throughout the region.
UN Security Council Resolution 2199, adopted in February this year, condemned the destruction of cultural heritage carried out by IS and Al-Nusra Front in Iraq and Syria. The resolution noted that these groups and others were “generating income from engaging directly or indirectly in the looting and smuggling of cultural heritage items from archaeological sites, museums, libraries, archives and other sites in Iraq and Syria.”
All UN member states should “take appropriate steps to prevent the trade in Iraqi and Syrian cultural property and other items of archaeological, historical, cultural, rare scientific, and religious importance illegally removed from Iraq since 6 August 1990 and from Syria since 15 March 2011, including by prohibiting cross-border trade in such items, thereby allowing for their eventual return to the Iraqi and Syrian people,” the resolution said.
Destruction carried out by IS against heritage sites in Iraq has hit the headlines in recent months, with the group releasing videos of attacks earlier this year on artefacts in the Mosul Museum in northern Iraq and the archaeological sites of Nimrud and Hatra.
There are also reports that objects from these and other sites in Iraq and Syria have been looted for sale on the international antiquities market, with such looting in particularly Syria going back at least to 2013.
According to reports from UNESCO, illegal excavation and looting has taken place at all the sites in the Deir Al-Zor region of Syria, notably the Hellenistic site of Dura-Europos and Mari where armed gangs have reportedly caused irreparable damage to the ruins.
Tell Al-Bay’ah in the Raqqa region has been looted so extensively that the archaeological layers have been permanently destroyed, and the site of Tell Qaramel near Aleppo has been “the centre of what can only be qualified as looting on an industrial level,” with heavy machinery being moved in to clear the site in the search for antiquities.
The site of Apamea near Hama has been extensively looted, and items excavated from the Heraqla archaeological site near Deraa have been stolen by armed gangs. In the Idlib region, the Ancient Villages of Northern Syria, a World Heritage Site, has been “devastated,” UNESCO said, commenting that any archaeological site near the country’s borders was particularly vulnerable to looting since items found could be more easily smuggled abroad.
In a statement released in July last year, the Syrian government’s Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM) said that armed gangs were routinely looting archaeological and other sites across “vast regions” of the country.
“Hasaka, Deir Al-Zor, Dura-Europos, Idlib, some historic villages in the Dead Cities area, a part of rural Aleppo, Simeon Castle and its surroundings, Yarmuk Castle in Deraa, part of rural Hama and Apamea” have all been classified as “distressed cultural areas,” DGAM said, because of looting and the smuggling of items across the country’s borders.
Other reports have spoken of 290 sites of cultural or archaeological importance being affected in Syria since the beginning of the conflict in the country, with 24 destroyed, 104 seriously damaged, 85 partially damaged and 77 likely to be damaged. Amongst the worst affected are Aleppo, the Crusader castle of Krac des Chevaliers, Palmyra, Dura Europos, Bosra, Elba, Apamea, and Raqqa.
With the occupation of much of eastern Syria by IS since the DGAM statement, this situation can only have been exacerbated. Last week it was reported that the world-renowned site of Palmyra, already damaged by looting, was in danger of further damage as a result of nearby fighting between Syrian government forces and armed groups.
For the moment, efforts to halt the damage have foundered because of the continuing conflict in both Syria and Iraq and the difficulty of obtaining reliable reports on the extent of the destruction.
International efforts to help save Syrian and Iraqi heritage in areas where armed conflict is raging have focused on stepping up border inspections and putting pressure on countries with antiquities markets to do more to control trafficking and black-market trade.
This week’s Cairo Declaration contains provisions against such trade, both to help control the flow of “blood antiquities” from Syria and Iraq, in other words antiquities whose sale is being used to support terrorist activities, and to discourage looters on the ground.
“Anyone who buys a stolen Middle East artefact should know they may be personally funding terrorists’ wanton killings,” said Deborah Lehr, chair of the Antiquities Coalition, a US-based NGO and one of the sponsors of this week’s Cairo conference.
“Some of the same groups that are trafficking in and profiting from the sale of antiquities are using those dollars to destroy invaluable records of human history,” she said.
Various figures have circulated regarding the amounts of money that armed groups could be accessing as a result of the illegal antiquities trade, with one figure cited being in excess of $6 billion.
In comments made to the German News Agency DPA in April, Lehr said that while it is not possible to arrive at reliable figures, the extent of the looting taking place or that has taken place in Iraq and Syria suggests the trade is worth billions.
Though IS typically smashes larger pieces, it is smuggling smaller pieces out through Turkey and Lebanon, she said, from where they are distributed by organised crime networks.
Small pieces can be sold over the Internet marketing site ebay, while larger ones can be sold through unscrupulous dealers at prices of up to “a million dollars or more” to collectors in Europe, the United States, the Gulf States, China and Japan.
“The destruction and looting of archaeological sites and museums [in the Middle East] have reached unprecedented levels.
The destruction of cultural heritage, the cultural cleansing, is being used as a tactic of war to terrify populations, to finance criminal activities and to spread hatred,” Bokova said at this week’s Cairo conference.