How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

So why is Isis blowing to pieces the greatest artefacts of ancient history in Syria and Iraq? The archeologist Joanne Farchakh has a unique answer to a unique crime. First, Isis sells the statues, stone faces and frescoes that international dealers demand. It takes the money, hands over the relics – and blows up the temples and buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of what has been looted.

Temple of Bel

“Antiquities from Palmyra are already on sale in London,” the Lebanese-French archaeologist Ms Farchakh says. “There are Syrian and Iraqi objects taken by Isis that are already in Europe. They are no longer still in Turkey where they first went – they left Turkey long ago. This destruction hides the income of Daesh [Isis] and it is selling these things before it is destroying the temples that housed them.

“It has something priceless to sell and then afterwards it destroys the site and the destruction is meant to hide the level of theft. It destroys the evidence. So no one knows what was taken beforehand – nor what was destroyed.”

Ms Farchakh has worked for years among the ancient cities of the Middle East, examining the looted sites of Samarra in Iraq – where “civilisation” supposedly began – after the 2003 US invasion. She has catalogued the vast destruction of the souks and mosques of the Syrian cities of Aleppo and Homs since 2011.

Indeed, this diminutive woman, whose study of the world’s lost antiquities sometimes amounts to an obsession, now describes her job as “a student of the destruction of archeology in war”. Over the past 14 years, she has seen more than enough archeological desecration to fuel her passion for such a depressing career. Politically, Ms Farchakh identifies a particularly clever strain in Isis.

“It has been learning from its mistakes,” she says. “When it started on its archeological destruction in Iraq and Syria, it started with hammers, big machines, destroying everything quickly on film. All the people it was using to do this were dressed as if they were in the time of the Prophet. It blew Nimrud up in one day. But that only gave it 20 seconds of footage. I don’t know how many people’s attention it could capture with that short piece of film. But now it doesn’t even claim any longer that it is destroying a site. It gets human rights groups and the UN to say so. First, people are reported as hearing ‘explosions’. The planet then has the footage that it releases according to its own schedule.”

For this reason, Ms Farchakh says, Isis does not destroy all of Palmyra in one video. “It started with the executions [of Syrian soldiers] in the Roman theatre. Then it showed explosives tied to the Roman pillars. Then it decapitated the retired antiquities director, al-Asaad. Then it blew up the Baal Shamim temple.

“And then everyone shouted, ‘Oh no – what will be next? It will be the Bel temple!’ So that’s what it did. It blew up the Bel temple. So what’s next again? There will be more destruction in Palmyra. It will schedule it differently. Next it will move to the great Roman theatre, then the Agora marketplace [the famous courtyard surrounded by pillars], then the souks – it has a whole city to destroy. And it has decided to give itself time.”

Roman amphitheatre

The longer the destruction lasts, Ms Farchakh believes, the higher go the prices on the international antiquities markets. Isis is in the antiquities business, is her message, and Isis is manipulating the world in its dramas of destruction. “There are no stories on the media without an ‘event’. First, Daesh gave the media blood. Then the media decided not to show any more blood. So it has given them archeology. When it doesn’t get this across, it will go for women, then for children.”

Isis, it seems, is using archeology and history. In any political crisis, a group or dictator can build power on historical evidence. The Shah used the ruins of Persepolis to falsify his family’s history. Saddam Hussein had his initials placed on the bricks of Babylon. “This bunch [Isis] decided to switch this idea,” Ms Farchakh says. “Instead of building its power on archeological objects, it is building its power on the destruction of archeology. It is reversing the usual method. There will not be a ‘before’ in history. So there will not be an ‘after’. They are saying: ‘There is only us’. The people of Palmyra can compare ‘before’ and ‘after’ now, but in 10 years’ time they won’t be able to compare. Because then no one will be left to remember.  They will have no memory.”

As for the Roman gods, Baal had not been worshipped in his temple for 2,000 years. But it had value. Ms Farchakh says: “Every single antiquity [Isis] sells out of Palmyra is priceless. It is taking billions of dollars. The market is there; it will take everything on offer, and it will pay anything for it. Daesh is gaining in every single step it takes, every destruction.”

Source.

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Treasure hunting in Bulgaria

Real-life vampires, giant rock vaginas, ancient sites to rival those of Greece and Rome – Bulgaria’s archaeologists are putting their country on the map of world history, but first they have to stop the mafia stealing its treasures.

The illegal diggers come at night with shovels and sacks, hunting through the places where they know the professionals have been. They’re looking for the tonnes of ancient artefacts that lie hidden in Bulgaria’s soil.

In the past two decades, Bulgarian law enforcement agencies say this plunder has turned into a €30m-a-year industry for local gangs, putting it a close third behind drugs and prostitution. The artefacts – gold Roman coins, ancient Greek silver, Thracian military helmets – wind up with falsified documents in auction houses in Europe and North America, or increasingly with wealthy Arab and Asian collectors.

“You cannot put a value on what is lost because the real loss is information,” says Professor Bozhidar Dimitrov, director of the National Museum of History in Sofia, who has spearheaded efforts to reclaim lost relics. “Even if we recover them, we don’t know where they were originally found, so our understanding of the history is gone.”

Police say there are 300 criminal treasure-hunting gangs in Bulgaria at present, but as many as 50,000 people are thought to be involved in illegal digging in some form. Entire villages have been known to take part in some impoverished corners of Bulgaria.

Belatedly waking up to the scale of the problem, Bulgarian authorities are trying to claw back some of their lost history from around the world.

“The record so far belongs to the Canadians,” said Prof Dimitrov. “A couple of years back, they returned 21,000 artefacts in one go.

A miniature golden chariot with the goddess of Nike, probably dating back to the 3rd Century BC, on display at the National History Museum in Sofia.

“The Italians had so much to return that the minister of culture became worried about the cost of the shipment, so he ordered his entire delegation to carry two extra bags of luggage when they came here. He himself showed up at my office with two huge suitcases full of priceless artefacts.”

Prof Dimitrov’s huge office looks more like a Bond villain’s than that of a historian: wood-panelled walls and a long window staring up at the Vitosha mountains. “It was designed to intimidate guests”, he says between chain-smoked cigarettes – the museum was formerly the residence of Communist dictator Todor Zhivkov, who ruled Bulgaria for 35 years up to 1989.

The Communist legacy is part of the reason why only a quarter of Bulgaria’s treasures are thought to have been discovered so far. Trapped behind the Iron Curtain for half a century, Bulgaria had few tourists, which meant minimal investment in archaeology and preservation.

This was followed by a decade of political confusion and economic crisis after the fall of Communism, when organised crime groups had almost completely free rein.

“In the Nineties, the police could stop only about 10 per cent of the stuff leaving the country,” estimates Prof Dimitrov. “Things have improved a lot. Now they get about 70 to 80 per cent. The police show up all the time with new hordes they have seized from shops in Sofia.”

As if to prove the point, the professor cuts the meeting short to receive the deputy director of the police, who says he has 2,000 artefacts to hand over, discovered in the basement of a local antiques store.

Historical discoveries have been one of the few bright spots for Bulgaria’s beleaguered economy in recent years, helping to convince the authorities of the need to protect their heritage.

Nikolay Ovcharov

Archaeologist Nikolay Ovcharov – nicknamed “Bulgaria’s Indiana Jones” – has just started the final excavations at Perperikon, a 7,000-year-old sacred site deep in the Rhodope mountains whose highlight is a walk-in vagina.

First discovered in the 1980s when ethnographers interviewed local villagers, Perperikon was in ancient times as famous as the oracle at Delphi in Greece, a place of wild bacchanalian rituals to the god Dionysus, and, according to legend, the birthplace of the Greek prophet Orpheus, which counted Alexander the Great among its visitors.

“It rivals Machu Picchu,” says Prof Ovcharov. “Bulgarian archaeology has enormous potential. It can change the way people think about this country. It can give us national pride as well as bringing in a lot of wealth.”

One of the most extraordinary aspects of Perperikon is a nearby fertility shrine – a 10-metre vulva carved in the rock, leading into a womb-like cave. Around midday at the right time of year, a phallus-shaped ray of sunlight reaches an altar deep in the cave.

“It felt very unusual standing in a vagina,” says Prof Ovcharov, remembering the moment he first saw the cave in 2002. “It was so unique. It still makes my hair stand on end.”

Perperikon

The big surprise for Bulgaria’s historians has been the global interest in its vampires.

A grave unearthed in the Black Sea resort of Sozopol last year turned up a skeleton with an iron stake through its rib cage. It belonged to a famous 14th-century pirate named Kirov, whose job was to attack the ships of illegal Venetian traders. He was later made governor of the town.

Locals believed the souls of evil men did not ascend to heaven and instead left their graves at night to drink the blood of the living. Although Kirov was given an aristocrat’s burial, locals evidently thought him a nasty piece of work, and snuck in after the funeral to drive a stake through the body in order to keep his soul from escaping. They pulled out his teeth, too, just to be safe.

The discovery reached the press almost by accident. Prof Dimitrov was sneaking a cigarette outside Sozopol’s town hall just after the grave was found and some journalists came up to tease him about his heavy smoking. He only mentioned the vampire to deflect attention.

“Suddenly, it became a huge international sensation,” he says at his office, lighting another cigarette. “Vampires are very common here – we’ve already found more than a hundred – so we hadn’t thought to publicise it. I didn’t know there was a vampire movie with Brad Pitt and that they were so popular. It was featured in over 1,200 publications. That’s more than covered the fall of our Communist dictator.”

The vampire has proved a great pull for tourists, and drawn further attention to the astounding discoveries being made in Sozopol.

The skeleton of a man at Sozopol in Bulgaria, with an iron stake driven through his chest.

In 2010, a marble box containing a tooth and bits of skull were found on an adjacent island which are said to be relics of St John the Baptist. Foreign experts dated them to the first century AD and said the DNA belonged to a Middle Eastern man, making the claims plausible enough to attract coach-loads of pilgrims.

Another site in the town has uncovered the ruins of Roman baths alongside a Greek temple to the God Poseidon and a medieval church – a rare chance to see the evolution of worship in a single spot.

This is not so surprising for Bulgaria, a country whose strategic location at the crossroads of Europe and Asia has made it one of the world’s most sought-after territories throughout the ages. Greeks, Romans, Thracians, Byzantines and Ottomans all fought countless wars to gain control of its fertile lands – a bitter irony given the controversial emigration of young Bulgarians over the past two decades.

Not all are happy with the government’s efforts to control the trade in historical artefacts, however. Bulgaria’s small shopkeepers complain about restrictions on selling any pre-twentieth century objects.

“The police can shut me down for having just one old coin,” says Constantine Georgiev, owner of a small bric-a-brac store in Sofia. “But this just means the trade in antiques is controlled by around 10 very rich guys with political connections. No one goes after the big mafia bosses because they can afford the bribes.”

Efforts to increase sentences for illicit smugglers have started to change attitudes towards a crime that was not taken too seriously in the past.

An archaeologist cleaning a skeleton during archaeological excavations in the Black Sea town of Sozopol last year

“Many used to see it as a fun adventure,” says Prof Dimitrov. “The men dig while the women do a barbecue. You had police and even priests taking part.”

Indeed, a 41-year-old priest from the northern city of Vratsa was busted in 2010 after conducting over 1,000 illegal sales of ancient coins and jewellery over the internet.

But despite these efforts, experts say that widespread corruption and the high demand from overseas means Bulgaria’s treasures will continue to disappear into private collections, while authorities face a relentless challenge trying to protect over 40,000 known archaeological sites across the country.

“We lobbied for an amnesty a few years back so that private owners could declare what they had on the condition it was not sold or exported. That was one of the first laws that was overturned when GERB [a right-wing Bulgarian political party] took power in 2009,” says Prof Ovcharov. “Rich collectors are a powerful lobby.”

From independent.

Archaeology of politics: Turkey vs. Germany

From DW:

An argument between Germany and Turkey about ancient treasures is escalating. Turkey wants its treasures back, but German archaeologists say Turkish sites are being exploited for tourism.

Archaeology often has a lot to do with politics – the current argument between Germany and Turkey is a prime example. Hermann Parzinger, head of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, last December accused Turkey of displaying “almost chauvinistic behavior.” In reply, the Turkish culture minister Ömer Celik told German news magazine “Der Spiegel” that he demanded an apology, and he asked for five ancient objects to be returned that are currently shown in museums in Berlin. He claims they were taken out of Turkey illegally. Parzinger rejects any accusations of illegality for three of these objects: In December 2012, he said that the torso of the Fisherman of Aphrodisias, the sarcophagus from the Haci Ibrahim Veli tomb and a 13th-century prayer niche were all acquired legally.

But “legal” is a fluid concept in the world of archaeology. The export of ancient treasures from the Ottoman Empire has been prohibited by law since 1884. At the same time though, it wasn’t unusual to share the treasures discovered in excavations with teams from abroad. Special permission was often given to take objects out of the country, and there was a flourishing black market. The issue is often less a matter of legality than of morality.

In this context, the tone that Turkey has recently used in its quest to get ancient treasures back from museums like the Metropolitan in New York and the British Museum in London is surprising. The Turkish culture minister’s announcement that he’s only asking for objects “that are rightfully ours” is a sign of Turkey’s new-found – some might say, excessive – self-confidence. Other countries have already felt the effects: two French excavation sites have been recently shut down.

Fight for the Sphinx

In 2011, then Culture Minister Ertugrul Günay reclaimed the more than 3,000-year-old Sphinx of Hattusa, which had been shown in a Berlin museum since World War I. If the Sphinx were not returned, said the minister, the German Archaeological Institute would lose its excavation permits in Turkey. The Sphinx was indeed returned, but without recognition of any legal claim: it was a goodwill gesture, according to Parzinger. In return, he was hoping for substantial loans from Turkey for a big Pergamon exhibition in Berlin last year. But the loans never arrived.

The agreement on more intensive cooperation between the two countries’ museums and archaeologists which was signed at the time seems to have been merely for show. Parzinger has complained publicly that Turkey hasn’t kept a single promise. He says there have only been more demands for the return of objects, as well as accusations that German archaeologists left “devastated landscapes” at excavation sites.

According to Ernst Pernicka, long-time head of excavation in Troy, there is no truth in that. He believes Turkey is using archaeologists as hostages to get the objects back that they want. Last year, Pernicka says, he and other top archaeologists were asked by the Turkish authorities to go to German museums to call for the return of a number of ancient objects. Turkish authorities deny this.

Another problem Pernicka sees is that Turkey is keen to conserve the sites and use them for tourism rather than for ongoing research. The government wants “archaeology in action.” But that often gets in the way of research, says Pernicka.

Ancient cities under water

The Turkish historian Edhem Eldem is also unhappy about the expectation that foreign archaeologists are expected to ensure that their sites are suitable for tourists. He puts it down to “growing nationalism” and the victory of economic interests.

“The fact that archaeology is part of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism shows how ambivalent the situation is,” says Eldem. He also laments the government’s double standards. If it makes economic sense, the authorities have no problem sacrificing important sites like Allianoi or Hasankeyf, which are on a level with Pompeii, for a dam project. Allianoi, an ancient city close to Pergamum, has already been flooded. And despite international protest, the same fate awaits Hasankeyf.

“International archaeology can only flourish in an atmosphere of mutual respect,” says Felix Pirson, head of the German Archaeological Institute in Istanbul. He doesn’t approve of the harsh tone that has dominated the German-Turkish debate recently. He sees the excavations in Anatolia, where “decisive developments in the history of man were continued, enriched and accelerated,” as an international task.

Confrontation doesn’t help anybody

Today, there are many teams already working under German leadership but with international membership. It’s not just German archaeologists who believe that dealing with World Cultural Heritage sites should be a common task not restricted by national borders. They also agree that questions need to be asked about the origin of ancient treasures which are taken out of their country. But it is clear that political confrontation and rigid demands don’t help anybody, including Turkey. The habit of reclaiming archaeological finds could come back to haunt Istanbul if Lebanon decides to ask for the return of the famous sarcophagus of Alexander. It was taken to Istanbul’s Archaeological Museum in 1887, during the time of the Ottoman Empire.

Latest Recovery of Looted Art at the Colosseum

A police officer looks at some of the hundreds of ancient artifacts recovered during an operation against looted art, at the Colosseum in Rome (AP Photo/Riccardo De Luca)

From ArtDaily:

Italian police have recovered hundreds of ancient artifacts in their latest effort to crack down on the looting of art, and have looted art, and they chose a unique setting to display them Friday: the Colosseum.

The 337 pieces displayed in the ancient Roman arena include vases, bronze tools and marble statues of Venus, some dating as far back as the 8th century B.C.

Police said the pieces are worth some euro15 million (about $20 million) overall. They said the pieces were returned from Switzerland in June after a two-year investigation.

Italy has aggressively pursued the return of art it says was illegally looted from its soil and sold to museums or private collections worldwide.

This probe grew out of an investigation into an Italian art dealer later convicted of art trafficking.

The objects were seized in Geneva, part of a massive haul of some 20,000 artworks from all around the world, the art squad of the Carabinieri police said.

The pieces returned to Italy also include “kraters” — huge vases used to mix wine and water — statuettes and drinking cups. Police say the objects were looted mostly from southern Italian regions and, after their spectacular display Friday at the Colosseum, they will return there.

As part of its campaign, Italy has secured the return of dozens of Roman, Greek and Etruscan artifacts in deals with museums including the Met and California’s J. Paul Getty Museum. In exchange, Italian art officials have agreed to give the museums long-term loans of equally significant treasures.

From ArtDaily

The problem of new looting in Iraq

From New York Times:

The looting of Iraq’s ancient ruins is thriving again. This time it is not a result of the “stuff happens” chaos that followed the American invasion in 2003, but rather the bureaucratic indifference of Iraq’s newly sovereign government.

Thousands of archaeological sites — containing some of the oldest treasures of civilization — have been left unprotected, allowing what officials of Iraq’s antiquities board say is a resumption of brazenly illegal excavations, especially here in southern Iraq.

A new antiquities police force, created in 2008 to replace withdrawing American troops, was supposed to have more than 5,000 officers by now. It has 106, enough to protect their headquarters in an Ottoman-era mansion on the eastern bank of the Tigris River in Baghdad and not much else.

“I am sitting behind my desk and I am protecting the sites,” the force’s commander, Brig. Gen. Najim Abdullah al-Khazali, said with exasperation. “With what? Words?”

looting in the desert at Dhahir

The failure to staff and use the force — and the consequent looting — reflects a broader weakness in Iraq’s institutions of state and law as the American military steadily withdraws, leaving behind an uncertain legacy.

Many of Iraq’s ministries remain feeble, hampered by corruption, the uncertain divisions of power and resources and the political paralysis that has consumed the government before and after this year’s election.

In the case of Iraq’s ancient ruins, the cost has been the uncountable loss of artifacts from the civilizations of Mesopotamia, a history that Iraq’s leaders often evoke as part of the country’s once and, anticipating archaeological research and tourism, future greatness.

“The people who make these decisions, they talk so much about history in their speeches and conferences,” said the director of the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, Qais Hussein Rashid, referring to the plight of the new police force, “but they do nothing.”

The looting today has not resumed on the scale it did in the years that immediately followed the American invasion in 2003, when looters — tomb raiders, essentially — swarmed over sites across the country, leaving behind moonlike craters where Sumerian, Akkadian, Babylonian and Persian cities once stood.

Even so, officials and archaeologists have reported dozens of new excavations over the past year, coinciding with the withdrawal of American troops, who until 2009 conducted joint operations with the Iraqi police in many areas now being struck by looters again. The antiquities police say they do not have the resources even to keep records of reported lootings.

Here in Dhahir, the looting is evident in the shattered bits of civilization — pieces of pottery, glass and carved stone — strewn across an expanse of desert that was once a Sumerian trading town known as Dubrum.

The bowls, vases and other pieces are destroyed and discarded by looters who seek gold, jewelry and cuneiform tablets or cylinders that are easy to smuggle and resell, according to Abdulamir al-Hamdani, a former antiquities inspector in Dhi Qar Province. The nearest city, Farj, is notorious for a black market in looted antiquities, he said.

“For me, for you, it is all priceless,” he said, “but for them it is useless if they can’t sell it in the market.”

The Dubrum site — which stretches for miles in a sparsely populated region — is pocked by hundreds of trenches, some deeper than 10 or 12 feet. At the bottom of some is the brickwork of tombs, marking the area as a cemetery. Mr. Hamdani said tombs were the most highly valued targets — of archaeologists and looters alike.

The headquarters of the antiquities police in Baghdad. The force has barely enough people to protect its own headquarters.

Many of the trenches date to the postinvasion chaos, but others have been freshly dug. Just last month someone used a bulldozer and plowed a two-foot-deep gash in the desert, unearthing the brick and bitumen remains of a stairway possibly leading to another cemetery. The materials dated it to the Babylonian period in the seventh century B.C.

The precision of the new looting indicates expertise. “The thief is in the house,” Mr. Hamdani said, suggesting that many of those involved worked on the sites years ago when legitimate archaeological excavations took place, before the war that toppled Saddam Hussein.

A Bedouin reported the new excavation to the local police in Dhi Qar, but officers there could do little except to draw public attention to the problem.

Mr. Hamdani’s successor as antiquities inspector for the province, Amir Abdul Razak al-Zubaidi, said he did not even have the budget to pay for gas to drive to the sites of new looting.

“No guards, no fences, nothing,” Mr. Hamdani said. “The site is huge. You can do whatever you want.”

Until the creation of the antiquities police in 2008, responsibility for protecting archaeological sites rested with the Federal Protection Police, created, equipped and trained by the American military. The federal police, however, also guard government officials and buildings, like schools and museums. The ruins, some just desolate patches of desert, slipped down the list of priorities.

Rather than filling the gap, the creation of the antiquities police deepened it. Iraq’s various military and police forces simply left the issue to an agency that effectively still does not operate, nearly two years later.

Mr. Rashid, director of the antiquities board, also said his agency’s request for a $16 million budget in 2010 had been slashed to $2.5 million. The police officers promised by the Ministry of the Interior simply have yet to materialize, despite an order last year from Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki.

“Not everything the prime minister requests from his ministers is obeyed,” he said. A spokesman for the Interior Ministry declined to comment on the status of the antiquities police.

Mr. Rashid went on to complain that the looters in some southern provinces — including Dhi Qar and Wasit — operated with the collusion of the law enforcement authorities. “The hand of law cannot reach them,” he said.

The extent and lasting impact of the looting in sites like Dubrum may never be known, since they have never been properly excavated to begin with.

Mr. Zubaidi, the inspector in Dhi Qar, compared the current crisis to the looting of the National Museum in Baghdad, a convulsive ransacking that shocked the world into action. The museum’s fate continues to attract far more attention from the government and international donors.

“Most of the pieces that were stolen from the National Museum will come back,” Mr. Zubaidi said. “Each piece was marked and recorded.” Nearly half the 15,000 pieces looted from the museum have been returned. “The pieces that were stolen here will never be returned,” he said. “They are lost forever.”

From New York Times