On September 17, online media flooded with news of an arrest warrant for Italy’s former honorary consul in Luxor, Egypt, Ladislav Otakar Skakal, on charges of smuggling and trafficking over 21,8500 artifacts from Egypt into Italy. He was reportedly aided and abetted by an Egyptian official of a shipping and packaging company, and making matters more scandalous, several other Egyptian officials affiliated with former Egyptian President Mubarak’s regime were involved and called for arrest.
That incident is a microcosm of the state of affairs in antiquities trafficking across the Middle East – from Europeans, to locals, to shipping officials, to people in the U.S. and governments and regimes within the Middle East itself, actors in the trafficking trade have been accumulating power, resources and help from one another in what has become one of the largest black market trades of antiquities in recent history – without counting colonial theft.
We’re seeing everyone from possibly a migrant in Syria who’s trying to sell some things he found to get his family out of the country, to a high-level middleman or trafficker who works regionally and is moving massive amounts of material.
And what platform can make it more possible to connect all of these unrelated actors – and more – to each other than the largest networking website, branding itself with the tagline ‘connecting the world’?
The history of Facebook is marked by a slew of accusations thrown against them by everyone from free-speech advocates to wildlife activists and, so far, they have managed to elude almost every one of them with slippery, noncommittal remarks, hiding underneath vague policies and loopholes such as Section 230 of the Communication Decency Act (CDA) of 1996, which gives technology companies immunity from any content posted onto their platforms by third parties.
The ATHAR Project, short for the Antiquities Trafficking and Heritage Anthropology Research project, is a group led by anthropologists and heritage experts, diving into this online “underworld” of trafficking and looting of antiquities. Their report, published in June of this year, has garnered so much attention online that Facebook deleted 49 accounts after BBC released a video that exposed some of the groups they monitored.
Algorithms are actually pushing content to users, so each time you join one Facebook antiquities trafficking group, the platform recommends three more to you
Co-founder of ATHAR Project, Katie Paul.
This action sparked even more controversy and fury across online media and from the members of ATHAR project themselves. “Not only have they allowed this problem to become a huge issue, [they are now] allowing their platform to become a massive repository of evidence, which means they have the obligation to take it down and preserve this evidence and work with law enforcement agencies and other entities like ourselves to help disrupt this problem,” says Syrian co-director of ATHAR project and professor of Middle East history and anthropology Amr Al-Azm.
And now we’ve lost evidence on thousands of traffickers, thousands of items
The problem is that when they deleted the groups, they also refused to cooperate with authorities in providing the content as evidence, with the legal shield that is the CDA. “And now we’ve lost evidence on thousands of traffickers, thousands of items,” added Washington D.C-based anthropologist, Katie Paul, who is Al-Azm’s colleague and ATHAR Project’s co-director.
A screenshot of busts – purportedly taken from Palmyra – posted on a Facebook group for sale. Courtesy of The New York Times.
Facebook is designed in a way that lends itself to these kinds of transactions very easily, with a marketplace function and algorithms tailored to attract visitors to the groups they search for. “Algorithms are actually pushing content to users, so each time you join one Facebook antiquities trafficking group, the platform recommends three more to you, and this is really creating what was already a massive problem in a devastated region,” explains Katie.
The ATHAR project has focused much of its efforts on monitoring and discovering trafficked antiquities in Syria because of its affiliation with another Syrian-based initiative founded by Al-Azm, The Day After (TDA), which he, along with his co-founders, established as a response to a political vacuum that existed during the revolution and after, with people asking, as Al-Azm recalls, “what will happen the day after [Syrian president Bashar] Al-Assad leaves?” The initiative works on-ground to safeguard sites, monitor damage as well as looted antiquities, and mitigate with looters.
Syrian heritage expert and anthropology professor Amr Al-Azm. Courtesy of BBC.
“The conflict in Syria has been raging now for 9 nine years, and it has ruptured Syrian society across every possible cleavage; social, ethnic, sectarian, rural vs. urban, poor vs. rich. Think of a cleave that existed at some level in Syrian society and it has ruptured it. How are Syrians going to figure out a way to come back and talk to each other? What are the common denominators other than the fact that we sort of happen to call ourselves Syrian?” asks Al-Azm.
What are the common denominators other than the fact that we sort of happen to call ourselves Syrian?
These are questions iterated time and time again in conversations and debates on “identity politics,” – how does a community become one, and how does it develop a so-called “shared identity”? But identity here becomes relevant not through its abstract and ultimately incredibly vague and fluid meanings, but through what it offers to a people devastated by war: a connection and a reminder of a constant – albeit constantly evolving, disappearing, changing – element of culture; heritage, which has existed for centuries whether in times of peace, imperialism, or war.
A photographer holds up a photo of Temple of Bel in Palmyra, in front of its remains in 2015 after its destruction. Photo courtesy of Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images.
Over the past two years, Al-Azm and Paul have monitored and gathered evidence on hundreds of Arabic-language Facebook groups – most of which are private, with thousands of members – tracking criminal groups, cross-country interactions, and looted artifacts from several countries in the Middle East, including Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Yemen and Libya.
The Facebook groups act as go-to guides for excavators, with step-by-step graphics and instructions offered to aid in excavations, as well as tips on what to find where. There are also ‘loot-to-order’ requests, where people essentially ask for specific objects, expressing demand, thus creating an incentive for supply – and for people to loot.
Mosaic photographed and posted for sale on one of the Facebook groups.
Objects looted include busts – some of which were purportedly taken from the ancient city of Palmyra after ISIS’ siege and destruction of it, and mosaics and coins. “What we see there are some impressive items, but what are most common are objects that are small and easy to move and something that could be easy to launder or sell on a website like eBay, [like coins…],” explains Katie. “But while there’s not always high value for a single coin, we see individuals offering hordes of coins and if you’re selling that at about 100 dollars a cop we’re talking about thousands of dollars.”
...one commenter had mentioned the West doesn’t deserve it
A user on the group requests for Jordanian books, an example of a ‘loot-to-order’ request.
Activity on those groups is mostly fast-paced, transaction-based, and dominated with loot-to-order requests and infographics. Ironically though, they also often become a site for debate and dialogue on the matter of preserving heritage. When the ‘West’ for instance – that term that comes with its own baggage and weight of histories of conflicts and colonialism – comes into play, all the rules of the game on Facebook and online platforms with antiquities trade change. “More than once, we’ve seen users suggest that the items should be turned over to a museum rather than sold, because one commenter had mentioned the West doesn’t deserve it,” Katie explains.
"This mosaic artwork has historic and cultural value and must be dealt with by excavation and archaeology experts, to be moved later on to a museum. Please don't move it; may God bless your soul," reads the above comment on a post on a Facebook group for looting antiquities. Photo courtesy of Katie Paul.
A decades-(if not centuries)-long tradition of looting pre-existed the criminal and terrorist organisations dominating the present market in Syria, with mafia families and local individuals embedded in that history – resulting in a sort of possessiveness and sense of self-righteousness with looting when external parties become involved. It’s not a mindless criminal activity for them, but almost an art that they have mastered – with rules that only they know and follow.
[Bulldozing and destroying] were the actions of Da’esh, and we’re not like Da’esh. We’re civilised
“[Bulldozing and destroying] were the actions of Da’esh, and we’re not like Da’esh. We’re civilised,” are some of the comments Al-Azm has heard from local looters from his on-ground experiences in Syria. But local looters are not alone in the game of online looting and trafficking – and that is one of the most important points highlighted in ATHAR project’s report.
Syrian coins with carving of Tetradrachm of Antiochus VIII and Cleopatra, dating back to 121 AD, found on eBay.
“We’re seeing everyone from possibly a migrant in Syria who’s trying to sell some things he found to get his family out of the country, to a high-level middleman or trafficker who works regionally and is moving massive amounts of material,” says Katie.
ISIS institutionalised looting. They taxed it, they licensed it
Resorting to looting as a result of extreme poverty, lack of infrastructure, and unemployment, is what Al-Azm calls ‘subsistence looting’, and it’s currently a widespread phenomenon in light of the Syrian war. But what makes this kind of – mostly – circumstance-driven practice really dangerous is its institutionalisation and dispersion, which, according to Katie and Al-Azm, ISIS has made the reality in Syria and elsewhere.
The insides of Palmyra museum after the destruction of the city. Photo courtesy of Julian Robinson and Euan Mclelland for Mail Online.
“ISIS did not invent looting. When ISIS took over this large swath of territory in 2013 or 2014, they came upon a pre-existing condition. What they did however is that they looked at this and figured out very quickly that it is a useful revenue stream, because they’re creating a state,” explains Al-Azm. “They institutionalised it, they taxed it, they licensed it […] and when these guys start to scatter with the beginning of the end of the Caliphate, they go to Tunis and now we start to see similar MOs there, we see similar MOs in Egypt, and in Libya. It’s like a virus that’s spreading.”
There are high-up people [in the U.S.] writing op-eds saying it’s ethical to buy this stuff, because otherwise they’d be destroyed
Da’esh and similarly designated terrorist organisations have often been made the scapegoats of the ever-increasing loss of cultural heritage in Syria and other conflict-ridden countries, including Yemen, Afghanistan and Libya. Al-Azm, however, explains that the situation is far more complex, and must be understood within the larger context and history of looting within the region, as well as beyond it.
“There are high-up people [in the U.S.] writing op-eds saying it’s ethical to buy this stuff, because otherwise they’d be destroyed. No, ISIS looks at cultural heritage as an exploitable resource. You loot and sell what you can make money from, and with what you cannot sell, you can exploit for publicity and propaganda. You cannot sell the temple of Bel, so let’s blow it up and create a massive propaganda campaign that demonstrates the ability of ISIS to act with impunity and the impotence of the international community to stop it, and it was a very powerful and effective one,” adds Al-Azm.
This Egyptian brown quartzite head of young King Tutankhamen, circa 1333-1323 BC, auctioned by Christie's in what became a huge international scandal in July of this year. Photo courtesy of BBC.
Looting becomes then a vicious cycle, with one party claiming another will loot it anyway, so they use that as an excuse to keep it in a museum far from the culture that bred it and the people who preserved it in the first place. Al-Azm also points out that looting is not at all limited to terrorist organisations, but has long been used as a source of revenue and of propaganda. “The Taliban used it with the Bamiyan Buddhas and the looting of museums in Afghanistan. Before them, Pol Pot [former Prime Minister of Cambodia] publicly declared that public heritage is a national resource to be sold like any other timber or mineral.”
Any museum in the West, no matter where, that contains artifacts or materials from other parts of the world, then it is very likely that these were looted at some points of their history
Cultural heritage has thus long been tied into conflict and politics, not only in the MENA region, but across the world – imperialism being one of the most well-known and dramatic iterations of that fact. “Any museum in the West, no matter where, that contains artifacts or materials from other parts of the world, then it is very likely that these were looted at some points of their history. Whether they were looted 300 years ago, 200, 100, or 50 years ago is open to debate, but they were looted,” Al-Azm says.
Global consensus is divided when it comes to preservation efforts. In spite of the massive market in looting in Syria, there are also countless efforts being made to preserve heritage. Al-Azm recalls one famous incident that occurred with the Ma’arra Mosaic Museum, located in Idlib, Syria, which was endangered during the height of the Syrian revolution.
Locals gathered and protected it, out of their own volition and without help from any authorities, and created one of the strongest preservatory systems in recent history. They were aided only by a group of archaeologists, art historians, preservationists, and librarians who are part of an international project called Safeguarding the Heritage of Syria and Iraq (SHOSI), but it was largely a local effort, organised by local stakeholders.
Preservation team working on reconstructing a wall at the Ma'arra Museum in Idlib, Syria. Courtesy of SHOSI project.
On the other hand, many museums and auction houses are falling into the spiral of buying and selling antiquities that were, as Al-Azm explains, almost certainly looted and may have reached them as the last destination in the long journey that starts between Facebook, Ebay, WhatsApp, Instagram and other platforms, and ends either in one of those places or in someone’s home. Those incidents become especially scandalous, but they do not exist alone – they are aided by the institutionalisation of the process by ISIS, and the desperation of individuals who are stuck in a place and in circumstances that force them into criminal activity.
Al-Azm and Katie both suggest legal action, and Al-Azm emphasises the need to probe some of these actors – especially museums and auction houses who are also arguably very involved in normalising and mainstreaming the practice – with the right tactics, and also perhaps, by turning the discourse of the ‘war on terror’ that has become so eminent against them. “[Governments need to tell them] that any looted antiquity may have benefited a terrorist entity and therefore, they’re going to be prosecuted under the Terrorism act, then you’re going to see a completely different discussion going on.”
Discourses surrounding cultural heritage are in severe contestation, and much of the cultural heritage of the region is falling prey to the lack of consensus – ending up in the wrong hands or even being lost in the digital realm. However, for cultures at conflict, as Al-Azm emphasises, it is a matter of life and death – and cultural heritage, which can for some, be a mere object of wealth, can, for others, serve as a political and social necessity for an entire community. As he put it in an emotional statement when I asked why he still fights to preserve heritage, in spite of all the difficulties they face and all of the other issues rampant in Syria today, "saving Syria’s past is part of saving its future.”
You can read the ATHAR Project's full report on online antiquities trafficking here.