Arms for Antiquities: Syrian Artifact Smuggling Bleeds Sites Dry

The issue was brought to light recently after the attempted smuggling of 18 mosaic tiles from Syria, which were seized by Lebanese customs a year and a half ago. (Photo: Marwan Tahtah)

By: Joanne Bajjaly

Published Tuesday, September 3, 2013

On August 31, the Directorate General for Antiquities in Lebanon returned 18 mosaics seized a year and a half ago to its Syrian counterpart. Al-Akhbar has the exclusive story of the voyage of these archaeological treasures, as well as the current state of ancient sites in Syria like Apamea and Dura-Europos.

The raging war in Syria is killing civilians, wrecking institutions and the economy, and destroying the country. It is also eliminating its heritage, history, and antiquities. But discussing this issue is not a luxury we can postpone.

The issue is not random at all. Theft of archaeological sites in Syria has become systematic. Those implicated in the operations, thieves and smugglers, are not reluctant to justify their reprehensible and illegal actions.

The issue was brought to light recently after the attempted smuggling of 18 mosaic tiles from Syria, which were seized by Lebanese customs a year and a half ago. The General Directorate of Antiquities is expected to return them today to the Directorate-General for Antiquities and Museums (DGAM) in Syria.

Information obtained by Al-Akhbar reveals that the smuggling operation took place in October 2012. A Syrian bus with Idlib license plates crossed the Lebanese border with only a few passengers. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary.

However, a surprise checkpoint set up by customs stopped the bus. The driver was asked to open the luggage compartment in the lower part of the bus. To their surprise, they found 18 mosaics, wrapped and piled on top of each other.

The artifacts were arranged in the form that carpets are kept at home. In fact, "carpets" are what they are usually called by smugglers. When mosaics are being removed from the ground, they are covered with a piece of strong adhesive cloth.

This allows them to detach the small stones – some of which had been stuck together for more than 200 years – and begin rolling the mosaic like one would roll a carpet, removing them from the ground. The loose stones that remain are picked up so they can restore the mosaic with its original stones. This was how the discovered mosaics were removed.

Customs delivered the pieces to the Office of International Thefts. Archaeologists from the Lebanese General Directorate for Antiquities checked the mosaics and declared to Lebanese authorities that they were authentic and originated in Syria. The directorate's report was used as conclusive evidence in the trial against the bus driver, who was accused of smuggling, despite his lawyer's attempts to prove that his client was transporting recently manufactured personal items. But this could not hold up against the report of archaeologist Laure Salloum.

The court ordered the items to be returned to Syria and, in the meantime, to be safely kept in the General Directorate for Antiquities' warehouses. Syrian authorities were contacted, and they sent a preliminary team to assess the pieces and verify their Syrian origins. The team, which visited the warehouses in June, was made up of Director of Archaeological Exploration and Studies Ahmed al-Tarqaji, Director of Restoration Laboratories Kamit Abdullah, and restoration expert Maher Gebai.

The teams from both directorates began inspecting the artifacts, and the Syrian team faces began turning sour with every piece. At the beginning, they were listening to their Lebanese colleagues and did not give quick answers, asking simple questions.

The first piece was heavily damaged. The relatively large stones (1 cm squares) were falling apart, and it was difficult to discern the the original image it depicted. This mosaic was cut into 11 smaller squares, which had to be put together to see the original image.

Then they began to unwrap the mosaics with small stones. Faces and Greek writing began to appear. One of them depicted scenes from Homer's Odyssey, with the names of the characters in Greek letters.

The suspense grew as the last and largest piece, 3.40 by 2.10 meters, was unwrapped, revealing meticulous precision in illustration and the use of stones of no more than 3 mm each. The tableau portrayed the four seasons as faces at the corners. In the middle, it showed people going about their daily life. The borders were decorated with signs of the zodiac.

"The astrological depiction of the zodiac in its current form goes back for centuries," explained Abdullah. "This was discovered in other mosaics." As for the authenticity of these pieces, he said, "We cannot say for sure until we study the pieces in the restoration laboratories in Damascus." However, he stressed that the last item was "a first-class museum piece. It is a valuable piece of art originating in northern Syria."

Some of the pieces might not be completely original, with certain faces and details added to raise its value in the market. This explains the clarity of some of the details, which seem to have been arranged on the piece of cloth and not removed from the ground.

The pieces will be taken to Damascus to ensure their authenticity, in the first operation of its kind involving the return of antiquities since the eruption of the events in Syria. "Lebanon is the only neighboring country, which contacted us and informed us about seizing smuggled antiquities," explained the General Director of DGAM in Syria, Mamoun Abdul-Karim. "This positive relationship confirms that Lebanon is truly concerned with the fight against smuggling Syrian antiquities. We are grateful for its efforts and credibility."

Guns for Artifacts

Lieutenant Colonel Nicolas Saad, from the Office of International Thefts, who is in charge of investigating the mosaics case, informed Al-Akhbar that "smuggling antiquities from Syria is a reality we have been dealing with for years. However, ever since the war erupted, we have more than 60 reports about robberies in the past two years. This is a huge number and indicates the magnitude of the smuggling."

(Photo: Marwan Tahtah)(Photo: Marwan Tahtah)"The war in Syria is drowning the country in its people's blood and extensive destruction. But where the guns do not reach, the shovels will dig," Saad explained. "Archaeological sites, even the ones difficult to reach, were not spared the war. Over there, Syria's history is not buried under the rubble, but in the sand carried with the antiquities."

"Archaeological digs have become open grounds and everyone can find something there. Some of them justify this by the supremacy of their cause and others by their need. Fighters from the Free Syrian Army (FSA) acknowledged in several media reports that some combatants are charged with digging for antiquities that could be exchanged with weapons," Saad explained.

"This is confirmed by archaeologists monitoring the market closely. One of them, who asked to remain anonymous, goes even further, saying that trading 'arms for artifacts' is currently taking place, but it is concentrated in Turkey, not Lebanon. The roads leading to Lebanon are now inside the battlefields in more than one location. Yet the borders with Turkey are wide open and the traders can move with great ease. The goods are transported by airplanes to selected locations," Saad continued.

Smuggling methods are many and complicated. Each network has its men, crossings, and heroes. Smugglers do not mix merchandise or roads. They each use their own channels, according to Saad. "Each network has its schemes, agents, and currencies. Channels vary between countries that export contraband and those that import them. While Lebanon is an importer of weapons, it is also an exporter of antiquities. But trading in antiquities is never mixed with trading arms."

“Arms dealers are connected on many levels and will not risk their crossing for artifacts. They do not exchange weapons with archaeological pieces, since they are not in the business of selling them. They want their money in cash.

"However, those who exchange artifacts for guns are the middlemen and local salesmen. They sell the pieces and might gift them to local politicians who believe it will increase their stature. The deal is a win-win situation for everyone, except the originating country, of course. But, since trading in antiquities aims to fund a war that has its believers, it is no longer illegal. They legitimized it and facilitated its channels."

Saad also elaborated on the methods of smuggling. "The map of contraband smuggling divides the world into two sections: importers and exporters. Countries could be importers of some contraband and exporters of others. Lebanon imports weapons and stolen cars, and exports antiquities and hashish. It is merely a stop for stolen Syrian antiquities, not the final destination. Therefore, the same routes could be used for both sectors."

To ensure the success of smuggling operations of this magnitude, "there is collusion between security forces on each side of the border, the exporting and the importing side. General Security and Customs are the ones responsible here. The collaboration of some of their personnel ensures the arrival of the pieces."

"A tariff is set between smugglers and collaborators, which changes depending on the quantity, size, and value of the smuggled pieces. Most smuggling operations are discovered due to disagreement on the amount. So they 'snitch' on each other and inform the authorities, which are not involved in the operation, and it gets stopped. However, as long as they agree on the fee, smuggling will happen."

Archaeological Sites or the Moon's Surface?

There are no official figures on how extensive the thefts are in Syria. Aerial photographs could be the only evidence currently. At the satellite division of the UN Institute for Training and Research, sources maintain the lack of images for sites along the Euphrates, especially around the Hassakeh region. However, a detailed comparison of images of Apamea between 2011 and 2012 shows that the famous archaeological site now looks like the surface of the moon.

More than 5,000 craters, some two meters deep or more, are spread around the site. Archaeologists fear that the fate of the eastern Dura-Europos and Mari sites could even be worse. According to former director of archaeological excavation in Syria Michel Makdissi, "We received news of [non-combatant] armed groups around these two sites, protecting workers spread around the two areas, who are digging non stop."

But who is stealing antiquities in Syria today? Each area has its own network. Along the border with Turkey controlled by the FSA, smuggling and arms mafias proliferate. In areas under the control of the regime's army, antiquities-exporting mafias are concentrated. However, it is certain that the excavations are happening all around the country. It varies according to security and want.

Stealing artifacts is nothing new in Syria. It is a well-known problem, which has been dealt with for many years. Syrian law punishes the theft of antiquities and their trading with a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison. But the war in Iraq and the related smuggling, which uses Syria and Lebanon as a conduit, heavily increased the strength of the sector in Syria.

Mafias dealing with archaeological artifacts are the busiest when wars erupt in antiquities exporting countries. The traders arrive and put their hands on the borders, sending their agents into the country. During the first days of the fighting, huge sums of money are paid for common archaeological pieces.

This is the bait that catches those looking for money, until the prices begin decreasing and the country is bled of its antiquities. Collaborators in the smuggling operation are many. They could begin with the peasant looking for artifacts in his land to sell in the market. Then there is the dealer who buys the piece and takes it to the local merchant, who gives it to another merchant connected with the smuggling network.

The network smuggles the merchandise across the borders to a major merchant in a neighboring country, who is contact with an international broker. Then it is delivered to an even bigger merchant in a major capital, who is usually very well connected socially and politically. The latter purchases the piece to sell to museums, collectors (usually regular clients), or very famous exhibition halls.

How to Protect Antiquities

Amidst all this chaos along the borders and the increasing capabilities for smuggling antiquities, NGOs and international organizations are the last refuge for putting an end to this type of trade.

Every time shells hit an archaeological site, UNESCO sends out an appeal and lists the protected global heritage sites that should be spared from the fighting. Other organizations follow suit. However, without actual forces on the ground, these pleas are merely ink on paper, which does not change anything on the ground.

For the real protection of antiquities, these organizations should be able to impose strict laws prohibiting trade in antiquities. The bleeding cannot be stopped from the source, but in the market. The power of this market should be checked and this type of trade should become illegal, not merely in UNESCO charters, but through painful penalties against traders and dealers in the importing countries as well.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

Comments

As concerning the situation in Syria, my view differs significantly from the ones expressed in various group forums in LinkAdIn, in newspapers, TV commentaries…..I’ve hold the same views during WAC Council Meetings concerning Iraq.

My own and my family experiences from living under totalitarian communist regime say that citizenship in a dictatorial regime is no fun. Yet the fall of communism in Eastern Europe and the dictatorial regimes such as Miloshevic, Saddam, Kadafi..etc. made the world and the Balkans in particular safer and better place. This is so because such regimes export all the time bad social practices; not only including illegal trade of antiques, drugs, people, but global networks of supporters that may have significant ideological and political impact on modern world.

Opponents may say that the present-day bomb attacks in Iraq and the civil war in Afghanistan, Egypt make the life of their peoples terrible. In my view the present-day atrocities in these countries reveal how awful is the situation living in a totalitarian/dictatorial regime. Only in the past the killings and oppression (certain people can easily be diverted from their normal life, business, professional carrier) were executed systematically in slow pace under the social surface and with the shameful blind eye of the international community.

In my view these regimes should not be left to live in a relative comfort and has to be opposed and pressed all the time in every possible way.

This unfortunate result is a by-product of the war. It is aggravated by the global market of antiquities. The problem is that this market cannot be closed down overnight but made more regulated.

More on the wishful thinking side: the major cultural heritage areas in Syria to be put under international control just as chemical weapons facilities. But this is not a political priority.

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