The territorial gains made by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria have provoked fears — as well as tentative news reports — that archaeological sites in those countries are being attacked and looted, much as sites in Iraq were at the outset of the second Iraq war.
We have recently returned from southern Turkey, where we were training Syrian activists and museum staff preservationists to document and protect their country’s cultural heritage. That heritage includes remains from the ancient Mesopotamian, Assyrian, Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine and Islamic periods, along with some of the earliest examples of writing and some of the best examples of Hellenistic, Roman and Christian mosaics.
In extensive conversations with those working and living in areas currently under ISIS control, we learned that ISIS is indeed involved in the illicit antiquities trade, but in a way that is more complex and insidious than we expected. (Our contacts and sources, whom we cannot name for reasons of their safety, continue their work under the most dangerous of conditions.)
ISIS does not seem to have devoted the manpower of its army to the active work of looting archaeological sites. Rather, its involvement is financial. In general, ISIS permits local inhabitants to dig at these sites in exchange for a percentage of the monetary value of any finds.
The group’s rationale for this levy is the Islamic khums tax, according to which Muslims are required to pay a percentage of the value of any goods or treasure recovered from the ground. ISIS claims to be the legitimate recipient of such proceeds.
The amount levied for the khums varies by region and the type of object recovered. In ISIS-controlled areas at the periphery of Aleppo Province in Syria, the khums is 20 percent. In the Raqqa region, the levy can reach up to 50 percent or even higher if the finds are from the Islamic period (beginning in the early-to-mid-seventh century) or made of precious metals like gold.
The scale of looting varies considerably under this system, and much is left to the discretion of local ISIS leaders. For a few areas, such as the ancient sites along Euphrates, ISIS leaders have encouraged digging by semiprofessional field crews. These teams are often from Iraq and are applying and profiting from their experience looting ancient sites there. They operate with a “license” from ISIS, and an ISIS representative is assigned to oversee their work to ensure the proper use of heavy machinery and to verify accurate payment of the khums.
In addition to the looting, ISIS seems to be encouraging the clandestine export of archaeological finds, which is primarily centered on the border crossing from Syria into Turkey near Tel Abyad, an ISIS stronghold. There is reason to suspect that ISIS has approved and encourages the transborder antiquities trade. In institutionalizing this system, which provides ISIS with one of its many diversified income streams, ISIS has caused irreparable damage to Syria’s cultural heritage.
Stopping this illicit trade is imperative not only because it is a source of income for a terrorist organization, but also because it jeopardizes the possibility of post-conflict stabilization and reconciliation. In Syria, cultural heritage is part of everyday life. Syrians live in ancient cities and neighborhoods, pray in historic mosques and churches and shop in centuries-old bazaars. If and when the fighting stops, this heritage will be critical in helping the people of Syria reconnect with the symbols that unite them across religious and political lines.
Numerous local and international organizations such as The Syria Campaign are advocating for the United Nations Security Council to ban the trade in undocumented and most likely recently looted antiquities. The success of such a resolution could become the most effective means available to save Syria’s past.
And saving Syria’s past is about saving Syria’s future.
Amr Al-Azm is an associate professor of anthropology and Middle Eastern history at Shawnee State University. Salam al-Kuntar is a lecturer of anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania. Brian I. Daniels is the director of research and programs of the Penn Cultural Heritage Center at the University of Pennsylvania Museum.