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Gangs eyeing Syrian antiquities

An internal Syrian government memo claims that “professional international gangs” are setting up shop inside Syria to mass loot the country’s antiquity treasures, a scenario eerily reminiscent of Iraq’s fate under US occupation. 

A recently discovered 1,500-year-old Christian church by the joint Syrian-Polish archaeological mission in Palmyra, 210 kms northeast of Damascus [Credit: AFP/Palmyra Department of Antiquities and Museums]
A Facebook group named Syrian Archaeological Ruins in Danger has posted a copy of a letter sent from Syrian Prime Minister Adel Safar to the ministers of culture and finance and the governor of the central bank. The letter confirms reports that “professional international gangs” had brought “equipment and satellite communication devices for stealing manuscripts and robbing museums, safes, and banks” into the country. Safar said that similar networks had operated in Iraq and Libya and requested the tightening of security measures around such places for fear that these gangs had already entered into Syria. 

This letter does not say anything new about the thriving trade in stolen antiquities in Syria. Gangs have long been involved in the smuggling of artifacts through Lebanon or other overland border crossings and on to markets in Europe and the US. The Syrian authorities deal firmly with offenders, who can be sentenced to up to 20 years in prison. But as the letter makes clear, the ongoing civil conflict makes Syria’s museums, archaeological sites, and stores of ancient artifacts acutely vulnerable, both to outright theft and corrupt insider dealings. 

The illicit antiquities trade is in part an unintentional by-product of Syria’s strenuous efforts to promote foreign tourism. The country marketed itself in Europe as a land of civilizations with a rich archaeological heritage. The Museum of Damascus organized and participated in exhibitions of Syrian antiquities around the world. This helped boost tourist numbers hugely, reaching 9 million in 2010. 

But the tourism boom had a downside, as antiquities dealers took advantage of the surge in the number of tourists to create a new market for themselves. The current unrest is a dream come true for them, as the experience of armed conflict in other countries has shown. 

First, dealers appear who offer large sums for unspecified antiquities. They often pay on delivery, in order to lure their local providers. Then the amounts of money paid diminish, and the special requests begin. For items such as statues with inscriptions, glassware, or coins, or even specific museum pieces. Extortion is employed, a technique perfected by gangs dealing in antiquities in previous Middle East conflicts. 

That was the experience of Iraq, where the looting and sale of antiquities began even as the battles were still raging in the 2003 US-led invasion. The gangs do not need much time to get started, as they have networks and contacts in place and know which doors to knock on when the opportunity arises. 

The situation in Syria is very critical. Unlike the Iraqi case, the black market in antiquities in Lebanon and elsewhere has not been saturated with Syrian pieces. But that does not mean the threat is not there, or even that thefts have not already taken place on the ground. Conditions are impossible to verify due to the inaccessibility of archaeological and other sites in Syria at present. But experts at Western universities began to monitor websites that offer antiquities for sale to check for items that may have been taken out of Syria. 

The bigger fear is of looting at Syria’s 25 antiquities museums. Over the past decade, the Syrian authorities have had a policy of displaying archaeological finds in the provinces they were located in, which entailed building several new museums. The policy was a success in terms of bringing the country’s ancient heritage closer to the people and encouraging tourists to travel to different parts of Syria. 

But it means there are many museums dotted around the country whose priceless exhibits could be robbed at any time. It is not clear whether the General Directorate of Antiquities and Museums has taken precautionary measures such as putting items in safe storage.  

Author: Joanne Bajjaly | Source: Al Akhbar [March 11, 2012]

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