KASU

Via Satellite, Tracking The Plunder Of Middle East Cultural History

Mar 10, 2015
Originally published on March 11, 2015 8:50 am

Southern Turkey, near the Syrian border, is the crossroads for an extensive smuggling operation of ancient artifacts. Those transactions are held in secret, often in towns along the border.

But high overheard, eyes are watching: satellites scanning heritage sites, sending alarming imagery to Washington, D.C.

From her office in the nation's capital, analyst Susan Wolfinbarger monitors the ransacking of these sites in Syria and Iraq on a large-screen computer.

"The looting is extensive; people are digging pits in the ground, holes so close together that we couldn't tell one apart from the other," she says.

Wolfinbarger is director of the geospatial technology project at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. She has been poring over high-resolution satellite images for months.

"It's a new way to monitor a conflict, it's not just peeking in, but seeing images every couple of days," she says.

She has analyzed hundreds of images, and what she sees is alarming: an aggressive looting campaign in areas controlled by militants of the so-called Islamic State.

"I knew that there was a lot of looting; this was just beyond the scale of anything we'd seen," she says, as she downloads images of a particular site in eastern Syria, on the Euphrates River near Iraq: Dura Europos, an ancient walled city.

The damage is staggering.

"There is a complete and massive change to this site," Wolfinbarger says, comparing the pre-war images to those collected in 2014 of the renowned archaeological treasure.

British soldiers discovered Dura Europus in the 1920s. They hit on the wall of the ancient city while digging a trench during World War I. Excavation revealed a provincial Roman town founded in 300 B.C.

Brian Daniels, director of research at the Penn Cultural Heritage Center in Philadelphia, describes Dura Europos as "a snapshot in time."

Humans built the first cities in this region, and human history is written on the stones and the artifacts. But now, much of that history is at risk. Looters have destroyed more than 70 percent of Dura Europus. It's a particular loss because there was still much more for archaeologists to learn about this intact, multicultural early Roman town.

"It has the oldest synagogue known in the world and it also has one of the oldest house church known in the world," Daniels says. "The level of looting and devastation that's happened to Dura Europus is heart-breaking."

The looting of antiquities accelerated in 2014, as ISIS tightened its grip across northern and eastern Syria and Iraq. The militant group is now the major player in the illicit trade of antiquities, but not the only ones in the looting business. Syrian regime soldiers and opposition rebels started looking for profit almost as soon as the conflict began in Syria.

"ISIS came to a pre-existing situation," says Syrian archaeologist Amr al-Azm. He now teaches Middle East history at Shawnee University in Ohio and is part of an international consortium to save heritage sites, Safe Guarding the Heritage of Syria and Iraq Project, or SHOSI.

Azm says ISIS began to levy a tax on the revenue raised on the sale of antiquities and even encouraged digging in their areas, but the militants have now expanded their role.

"They start to engage their own people in the digging; in the retrieval in these looted items and also in the sale," Azm says. "So, they start being involved in every level of the operation — and they started to do it for themselves."

That includes hiring their own workers and using their own earth-moving machinery.

Azm and others in the consortium are trying to fight back. For his part, Azm has organized a team of volunteers in Syria. They are archaeologists, engineers and artists. They risk their lives posing as antiquities buyers to collect photographs of stolen treasures.

ISIS has turned the illicit antiquities trade into a multimillion dollar transnational business, according to U.S. officials who track the trade and Syrians on the ground who can monitor some of the sales.

With much of the business carried out in secret and on encrypted cellphones and websites, an accounting of their earnings is in dispute.

But there is agreement that ISIS has changed the business of looting, streamlining the supply chain and dealing directly with wealthy international buyers.

Last month, ISIS shocked the world with a rampage in the Mosul Museum in northern Iraq, with militants using sledgehammers to break ancient Assyrian statues. ISIS claimed their radical interpretation of Islamic law propelled them to destroy the idols of ancient cultures. They made a video of the carnage to get their message out.

But it seems that these radical Islamists are more interested in income than ideology when it comes to selling out the ancient heritage of Syria and Iraq.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

There are reports that the self-proclaimed Islamic State has been looting, smashing and bulldozing antiquities in areas it controls in Iraq and Syria - in the 3,000-year-old city of Nimrud in northern Iraq, in the 2000-year-old city of Hatra, artifacts in the Mosul Museum. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon calls the destruction a war crime. In a moment, an Iraqi archaeologist who wants the U.S. to help protect these sites. First, NPR's Deborah Amos reports on the difficulty of tracking such looting in Syria.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: I'm in southern Turkey, near the Syrian border, the crossroads for an extensive smuggling operation of ancient artifacts. Those transactions are, in secret, often conducted in towns along this border. But way overhead, there are eyes watching, satellites scanning heritage sites sending alarming imagery back to Washington, D.C.

SUSAN WOLFINBARGER: I knew that there was a lot of looting and that there were reports that it was pretty massive, but this was just beyond the scale of anything we'd seen.

AMOS: Analyst Susan Wolfinbarger can see the ransacking on her computer. She's tracking heritage destruction, a satellite project at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. As ISIS fighters overrun an area, they pillage whatever they can, she says. She's analyzed hundreds of images - this one, a world-famous site on Syria's border with Iraq, Dura Europos, a walled city founded in 330 B.C.

WOLFINBARGER: The looting is so extensive that - so people are digging pits into the ground.

AMOS: Are all those little holes?

WOLFINBARGER: Yes. So these holes are so close together that we actually couldn't tell one apart from the other.

AMOS: The damage is staggering, says Brian Daniels. He's the director of research at the University of Pennsylvania's Cultural Heritage Center. Dura Europos, he says, was a treasure - an intact example of an early Roman town.

BRIAN DANIELS: It's almost like a snapshot in time because it has the oldest synagogue known in the world, and it also has one of the oldest house churches known in the world. I mean, the level of looting and devastation that's happened to Dura Europos is heartbreaking.

AMOS: The looting accelerated in 2014, just as ISIS took over the area in eastern Syria.

DANIELS: Seventy-six percent of the site has now been destroyed by looting. And this is an immense and very tragic loss. It was a horrible thing to see.

AMOS: To try to understand the loss, I went to an archaeological museum in southern Turkey. It's all part of the same historical neighborhood going back 3,000 years. You can see exactly what the looters are after - a lot of small objects. There are tablets, cooking utensils, jewelry, figurines. All of these are worth thousands of dollars on the illegal market.

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AMOS: In Syria, that illegal market started as soon as the war began. Regime soldiers and rebels were looting when ISIS arrived, says Syrian archaeologist Amr al-Azm. He's now a U.S.-based academic.

AMR AL-AZM: ISIS came to a pre-existing situation. What they then did was start to levy a tax on the revenue being raised by the sale of these looted antiquities.

AMOS: The tax brought windfall profits, says Azm and U.S. officials. In recent months, ISIS has expanded its role.

AL-AZM: They start to engage their own people in the digging, in the retrieval of these looted items and also in the sale, so they start to be involved at every level of the operation. And they started to do it for themselves.

AMOS: Azm is part of an international project to save heritage sites. He organizes volunteers in Syria. They risk their lives posing as buyers to collect photographs of stolen treasures. They report ISIS sends pictures directly through cell phones and the web to buyers in the region and Europe.

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AMOS: Last month, ISIS shocked the world with this video. It showed militants smashing ancient statues at the Mosul Museum in Iraq. For archaeologists, antiquities experts, the difficult question - is it better to sell or to smash? Dr. Assad Seif is an archaeologist in Lebanon's Antiquities Department.

ASSAD SEIF: Sometimes between two evils, you choose the less. And it's so weird that you can - this action can push you to think that - yeah, yeah, it's better to sell them than to destroy them. But I don't like to go there.

AMOS: ISIS has created a multimillion dollar antiquities business, the cultural loss increasing in pace as the war in Syria begins its fifth year. Deborah Amos, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.