The recapture of Palmyra from ISIS is undoubtedly a major battlefield victory for the Assad regime. For the first time in six months Syrian regime forces have recaptured significant territory from rebels. Prior to Russian intervention in September Assad’s forces were teetering on the brink of collapse, worn down by years of heavy casualties and equipment losses. Now Assad’s front lines are secure, the opposition has been further divided, and Russia has begun to draw down its military commitment.
Bashar Assad is now seeking to spin his battlefield victory into an even greater propaganda victory. Palmyra and its famous ruler Zenobia have long held special significance to the Assad regime as symbols of Arab nationalism and resistance to the West. The recapture of Palmyra allows him to counter allegations that he entered into a tacit nonaggression pact with ISIS in order to defeat the Western-backed Free Syrian Army first. It also him to sell his fight to stay in power as a war by the forces of civilization against the barbarians who threaten it.
The first step in the media offensive was to bring a parade of foreign journalists into Palmyra to photograph destroyed ancient ruins and shattered statues in the Palmyra Museum. These photographs allowed an assessment of the damage done to archaeological remains, but as more and more news stories were filed a definite pattern emerged. Story after story focused solely on the ancient ruins. Photo spreads showed only photographs of the damaged and undamaged archaeological remains rather than the rubble of the modern town. Articles quoted only Syrian antiquities officials or western scholars and never quoted anyone currently living in the modern town of Tadmor.
A few photos surfaced of areas of the town adjacent to the ruins. The commonly circulated explanation was that ISIS had seeded both the modern town and the ruins with mines. No one asked why the ruins were de-mined first.
Is the way this story has been covered an example of western priorities which grant the remains of the Middle East’s pre-Islamic past a higher status than its present inhabitants? Or can journalists only photograph and write about what they are allowed to see?
The next step came when Russia’s Hermitage Museum offered to aid the restoration of Palmyra. Museum director Mikhail Piotrovsky declared that “restoring Palmyra is the responsibility of all of us.” Iran quickly followed suit. Syrian antiquities director Maamoun Abdulkarim called for “archaeologists and experts everywhere to come work with us because this site is part of the heritage of all humanity.” The Syrian regime liberated Palmyra and now seeks to present itself as a defender of global civilization. One group of reporters who visited Palmyra were even told by a Syrian officer that “The Syrian army is defending Rome and London in as much as it is defending Damascus.”
A third step came on March 31 when Russian Ambassador to the United Nations Vitaly Churkin delivered a letter to the Security Council alleging that “The profit derived by the Islamists from the illicit trade in antiquities and archaeological treasures is estimated at US$ 150-200 million per year.” No evidence was cited to support this figure, which he appears to have made up, and it can be safely said that the figure is absurdly high. My own open source analysis concluded ISIS has made a few million dollars at most from the sale of looted antiquities and antiquities make up a relatively small source of funds for the group. I have seen nothing in the past three months that contradicts this assessment.
(The letter also included a number of allegations that Turkey is a major transshipment point for looted artifacts, which is already well known, and claims that Abu Sayyaf al-Iraqi is currently administering ISIS’ antiquities division, which would be rather difficult for him to do since he has been dead for almost a year).
This was followed by an announcement on April 1 by the state news agency SANA that government troops had uncovered a mass grave containing 42 bodies, including three children.
These attempts to shape the media narrative are notable not so much for what they include as for what they leave out. There is little discussion of the destruction wrought by indiscriminate aerial bombing of the town of Tadmor. Russian airstrikes frequently hit hospitals in rebel-held areas. ASOR’s Syria Heritage Initiative Weekly Reports are full of information about cultural heritage sites damaged by Russian and Syrian airstrikes.
Before the war, Palmyra was infamous among Syrian Islamists not for the pagan temples but for the notorious Tadmor Military Prison, into which regime opponents frequently disappeared. The prison was the scene of an infamous massacre on June 27, 1980 when, following an assassination attempt against Hafez Assad, soldiers under the command of his brother Rifaat entered the prison and slaughtered over a thousand inmates. After they captured Palmyra in May 2015, before touching any temples or tombs ISIS made a show of destroying Tadmor Prison. No photographs of that pile of rubble have been splashed across the front pages of major western newspapers.
Photos smuggled out from inside Assad’s prisons show that nothing has changed since 1980.
During the occupation of Palmyra by government forces from 2012-2015 the archaeological site was damaged by government forces using bulldozers to construct military positions among the ruins. Tower tombs were frequently looted.
I could go on.
The point is not to engage in reductionist debate about which side is committing worse human rights abuses. The point is to show how recent events are being manipulated by the Assad regime in order to capitalize on the opportunity to gain positive press coverage (not counting Russian and Iranian media) for the first time in five years.
People want to see threatened antiquities saved. Those who save them are hailed as heroes. Western minds and their media have a deep need to find a good guy and a bad guy in every conflict story.
Archaeology has once again been turned into a weapon, one tool of the ideological battlefield alongside many other types of weapons.
 Robbert A.F.L. Woltering, “Zenobia or al-Zabbāʾ: The Modern Arab Literary Reception of the Palmyran Protagonist,” Middle East Literatures 17, No. 1 (2014): 25-42; Christian Sahner, Among the Ruins: Syria Past and Present (Oxford University Press, 2014), 133-135.
On March 27 Syrian troops loyal to the Assad regime, with the help of Russian air power and special operations forces, recaptured the ancient ruins of Palmyra and the modern town of Tadmor. The town had been captured by ISIS in May of 2015 and in August several well publicized photos were released showing the temples of Bel and Baalshamin being destroyed. That same month ISIS beheaded Khaled al-As’ad, the site’s retired chief archaeologist and hung his body from a lamp post. During the ensuing months more reports came in regarding the destruction of other ancient structures in Palmyra, some of which were confirmed by satellite photography.
Palmyra is the second major archaeological site to be recaptured from ISIS (the first was the early Islamic site of Samarra last year). It is the first site to be retaken which has suffered sustained destruction at the hands of ISIS, giving us an opportunity to examine the damage.
The recapture of ancient Palmyra is a potent propaganda victory for Bashar Assad, whose regime heavily promoted the site in the past as symbolic of Syria’s alleged stance against western imperialism and irredentist goals of ruling “Greater Syria.” The government has brought in a steady stream of journalists to photograph the ruins, leading to a large number of photographs becoming available which will be analyzed below.
ASOR’s Syria Heritage Initiative has already published two reports on the damage done to the site:
Palmyra: Heritage Adrift (February 2012-June 2015)
Special Report: Update on the Situation in Palmyra (May 2015-September 2015)
UNESCO has also published a report on damage to the site from looting and military operations prior to October 2014.
Update 4/5/2016: ASOR has released a report analyzing the new footage from Palmyra. The report offers the following:
These findings add to a growing list of damage to Palmyra. Over the course of the war the Palmyra Museum, eight mosques, and Islamic cemetery, a church, two Shia shrines, the Baalshamin Temple, the Temple to Bel, the Triumphal Arch, Qalaat Shirkuh, Funerary Temple S103, and twelve Tower Tombs have all been damaged or destroyed. Undoubtedly more damage will be uncovered as preservation experts assess the site in the future.
The Ancient Site
Russian TV channel Russia 24 has obtained footage from a UAV flying over the ruins of Palmyra:
Analysis of the footage by ASOR showed that many major structures such as the theater, tetrapylon, agora and temple of Nabu are still standing. Despite being hit by airstrikes several times, the medieval fortress of Qalaat Shirkuh on the hill overlooking Palmyra seems to have only sustained light damage.
Further analysis of satellite photographs by ASOR shows that a funerary temple situated near the tower tombs was demolished. This was not previously reported.
Journalist Maher al-Mounes from the AFP gained access to the ruins on March 27. He posted the following short video of the Triumphal Arch, which was reported to have been destroyed last September but had never been confirmed:
Al-Mounes’s photographs were also hosted on the website of the Syrian Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM). These images show that the arch was destroyed by dropping its middle span, leaving the columns along the sides still standing.
Al-Mounes’ photos appear to show that the theater and the colonnaded streets are largely undamaged. Reports that ISIS tied prisoners to columns and blew them up remain unconfirmed and will require a thorough on-site or satellite survey of all the remaining standing columns.
Al-Mounes’ photos also show the Temple of Bel, which was blown up by ISIS in September 2015. The doorway has survived, as was previously seen in satellite photographs.
Footage from the Russia 24 drone shows the Temple of Nabu seemingly undamaged. The Temple of Nabu can also be seen in the above picture of the triumphal arch, behind the four columns standing to the left of the photo.
The Temple of Nabu was likely left alone due to its low state of preservation compared to the temples of Bel and Baalshamin. Ironically the temple of Bel was preserved so well because it was converted into a mosque in 1132 or 1133.
There is currently no reliable information about the status of the Temple of Allat, built within the Camp of Diocletian. A picture hosted by Russia Today claimed to show that the area known as the Camp of Diocletian had been razed, but a careful examination of surrounding landmarks in the photo with maps and Google Earth imagery shows that the picture cannot show the Camp of Diocletian and must have been taken from a point along the north wall.
Update 4/5/2016: According to satellite imagery included in the latest ASOR special report, the Temple of Allat and Diocletian’s Camp have survived without visible damage.
The temple of Baalshamin is not seen in any of the new footage, but was previously confirmed to have been destroyed through satellite imagery.
There is of yet no information on the status of the Temple of Belhammon.
A few weeks ago on this site I reviewed John Robb’s book Brave New War, discussing the potential of reconfiguring heritage preservation from a top-down, hierarchical model into a participatory, two-way, resilient and distributed platform. In many places around the world these kinds of projects are already being created, using technologies such as high-tech scanners, photogrammetry, 3D printing and immersive virtual reality to ensure that heritage is never lost.
From December 9, 2015 to February 5, 2016, John Jay College of Criminal Justice hosted an exhibit titled The Missing: Rebuilding the Past curated by professors Erin Thompson and Thalia Vrachopoulos. Among the projects on display was Nimrud Rising, an effort by the company Learning Sites and its president Donald Sanders to reconstruct the Northwest Palace of Nimrud which was destroyed by ISIS this past April. A 3D rendered video can be seen here, and the project also features an immersive 3D experience where visitors can strap on a virtual reality headset and then walk around the palace.
At the symposium associated with the exhibit, Sanders noted the technology could be expanded to create 3D models of archaeological sites as they currently exist, not just reconstructions as they were, thereby preserving a virtual copy that while it can never replicate the original can nevertheless preserve some aspect of what it was like to be there.
Iranian-born new media artist Morehshin Allahyari has made further attempts at reconstruction by building 3D models of artifacts from the Mosul Museum and then 3D printing them in resin as part of a series titled “Material Speculation.” The models are on a much smaller scale – Allahyari said she would not make any 1:1 scale replicas unless they would stand exactly where the originals once stood in the Mosul Museum – but each model contains a removable USB drive which is loaded with images and publications about the original artifact.
Allahyari has recently begun releasing her work on the website Rhizome, allowing others to download limitless copies of her digital models and print them worldwide, thereby ensuring that ISIS will never be able to remove the memory of these artifacts from the earth. The project, therefore, is not only a form of documentation but a form of artistic resistance to ISIS’ attempted erasure of Middle Eastern cultures.
Outside of this conference other projects have also made use of 3D rendering to reconstruct artifacts from the Mosul Museum, most notably by a group called Project Mosul. While Allahyari built her models from scratch using modeling software with images serving only as a guide, Project Mosul uses photogrammetry technology to transform still photographs into three-dimensional models.
Outside the conference other efforts have been made to use 3D rendering to reconstruct the artifacts from the Mosul Museum, most notably by a group called Project Mosul. While Allahyari built her models from scratch using modeling software with images serving only as a guide, Project Mosul uses photogrammetry technology to transform still photographs into three-dimensional models. Photos are taken from old publications or submitted by users, but since the Mosul Museum saw very few visitors in recent years there is a dearth of photographs and as a result many of their models have a lower resolution. They have produced a large number of digital models but none which have yet been 3D printed in physical form, nevertheless their website serves as a virtual preservation of many objects which now exist only in digital form.
In Shanghai, NYU-Shanghai undergraduate Lewei Huang created an interactive virtual reality model of his rapidly gentrifying childhood neighborhood, preserving the unique early twentieth century mixture of Chinese and Western architecture even as bulldozers begin to make way for urban development.
At Oxford, the Ancient Lives Project has been crowdsourcing a massive effort to transcribe an estimated 495,000 papyrus fragments excavated at Oxyrhynchus in Egypt and kept at Oxford’s Sackler Library since 1898 which have never been published. Volunteers with at least a basic knowledge of the Greek alphabet work transcribing the documents, which are then checked by a computer against known Greek texts. Among the project’s recent discoveries are a report from a doctor on a slave girl who drowned swimming in a canal, a fragment of Euripides’ lost play Andromeda and a fragment of a second century B.C. Greek drama based on the book of Exodus.
The Egypt Exploration Society has made similar crowdsourcing efforts to digitize their massive card catalogs which documented the society’s early excavations. Princeton University Libraries has made an even more ambitious project to document rare Arabic texts from Yemen, where an active manuscript culture among the Zaydi Muslims continues to the present day even in the face of war and religious persecution and an estimated 50,000 medieval and early modern manuscripts are held in private libraries. The Princeton project distributed high-resolution cameras to local workers, who scanned as many books as they can and sent the files out of the country to be hosted on Princeton’s library servers while avoiding removing the books themselves from their cultural context. With war raging in Yemen and frequent airstrikes targeting Yemeni cities, these archives are more endangered than ever.
Most ambitious is a project proposed by Charles Henry of the Council on Library and Information Resources to create a Digital Library of the Middle East to aggregate as much information as possible into a massive database which can preserve the heritage of the region.
All of these projects harness the power of the Internet to either enable broad participation in heritage preservation or leverage the distributed nature of the Internet to preserve thousands of copies of endangered or lost artifacts and make them accessible to the world. In the process, many of them may give their participants a sense of involvement and ownership in preserving the world’s history which they may never have felt before.
But this also raises some interesting philosophical issues. All digital data is in reality just a long string of 0s and 1s which a computer interprets to create a representation of whatever image, object, or sound was recorded. No digital copy can ever truly replicate the original. It can only represent it.
On the other hand, while modern representations can never connect us directly to the past in the same way as an authentic ancient object, it is important to remember that preservation is not a single event but a continuous process. Many of the classical sculptures which populate the world’s museums are Roman marble copies of long lost Greek bronzes which were made hundreds of years earlier. Likewise, we do not have the original texts of any ancient author, rather, we have versions which were copied over and over throughout the centuries. Age and preservation means both are now considered nearly as valuable as the originals.
In recent decades, replicas have been made of Tutankhamun’s tomb and the Lascaux cave paintings when it became apparent that the hundreds of thousands of visitors who filed through them each year were causing irreversible damage to the artwork.
Yet despite the popularity of these exhibits, cognitive studies have shown that people find replica or duplicate artworks to be fundamentally different from the original, especially if the replica was produced by a different artist than the original.
Everything rots eventually. Statues rust, ink fades, paper rots and pottery breaks. Digital media decays over time, or is recorded on formats which cannot be read by modern computers. The job of the preservationist never ends. Time and decay cannot be reversed, all the preservationist can do is slow down the rate of entropy.
But even if the original will inevitably decay, the information contained therein – the shapes, sounds, colors, textures and letters – can and has been preserved through continually creating new physical objects to carry that information. A close replica of a statue, a new edition of a written text, a digital representation of either of the above – all further the goal of ensuring this information is not lost. A replica is not the same as the original, but every original will eventually decay and then all that will remain are our continually created representations.
It is of course a terrible thought to imagine a world where there are no longer originals of ancient works of art but only digital representations. The impermanence of digital files, which unlike manuscripts and statues can be erased in a fraction of a second, is another difficulty worth considering. (Not to mention the potential for catastrophic loss of cultural materials through hacking, computer viruses or even an EMP blast). But its strength lies in its ability to replicate millions of copies of an artifact around the world in no time at all. It is possible that some day, like the sculptures of Praxiteles, that may be all we have left.
Article © Christopher Jones 2016.
This post is written especially for Doug Rocks-Macqueen’s January blogging carnival at Doug’s Archaeology Blog, seeking responses to the question “What are the grand challenges facing your archaeology?” You can read the rest of the responses here. For regular readers I hope this post will serve as a useful summary of the various topics discussed on this blog in the past year. For new readers I hope it will serve as a good starting point for reading about the issues discussed on this blog.
Wherever scholars of the ancient Near East gather these days the topic of conversation invariably turns to The Situation. The Situation hangs like a spectre casting a pall over our entire field. The Situation both steels our resolve while giving our work an urgent sense of purpose, and makes us despair as to whether any of it will survive.
The Situation has been slow-burning for a long while. The Iran-Iraq War limited archaeological missions from 1980-1988. The last American archaeological teams left Iraq in 1990. They have only returned to Iraqi Kurdistan in the past few years. War was followed by sanctions and poverty in the 1990s and regime change in the 2000s which led to disastrous looting of museums and archaeological sites. A brief glimmer of hope asserted itself after 2011, only to be dashed as ISIS swept to power in Iraq and Syria and began the destruction of cultural heritage on a scale not seen in the region in centuries.
The Situation is a crisis decades in the making. It will not be solved overnight, or next year, or even in ten years. But we in the field of the archaeology of the Near East must grapple with it, for the long term viability of our field is at stake. If we are to avoid becoming a dead field with a closed corpus of data, we must wrestle with the following issues:
1) Failed and Hollow States
A failed state is a state whose government no longer controls most of its territory. Syria, Libya and Yemen are failed states. Iraq has been on the brink of becoming one. A hollow state is a state where the government maintains all the trappings of a state – government offices, a standing army and police force, elections – even as the government loses day to day control over what happens in large swaths of its territory. Egypt has moved towards this from time to time since 2011, and Afghanistan is already there.
Failed or hollow states no longer effectively enforce laws against looting. Failed or hollow states produce desperate people who do what they have to do in order to survive. Failed or hollow states no longer provide secure environments for archaeological research. Archaeologists have even become targets themselves.
Failing states allow for the rise of superempowered groups bonded by a shared cause and rooted in primary loyalties to culture and family which run deeper than the state. As people lose trust in the state and its institutions these groups multiply and adapt as they seek to undermine the state. New tactics, such as funding an insurgency from antiquities sales, or destroying archaeological sites as a strategy of warfare, are sure to be adopted by more groups than ISIS.
2) We are Unprepared to Respond
We are unprepared to respond to any of this, because our entire apparatus of cultural heritage research and preservation depends on the power of the state. As a result, our response has been to double down on state power. We want heavily armed guards at every site and museum, looters jailed, imports banned, computer databases created, dealers investigated and some even daydream about sending UN peacekeepers to secure archaeological sites. Our codes of ethics are rooted in repatriation, international agreements and countries of origin.
These strategies still work where states maintain their power. But when the state is gone the result is a disaster, and there is little that state power can do to restore the situation. As state power declines in many parts of the world, we will need to conceptualize new methods of heritage preservation for the 21st century.
3) Archaeology Will Become a Tool of Many Nationalisms
Over much of the Middle East, one nationalism has been replaced by many nationalisms. The ideological basis of the old post-colonial Arab states is gone. Over the past five years the idea that the Arabic-speaking world was one unified cultural entity stretching from Morocco to the Indian Ocean has been shattered into pieces as one country after another has torn itself apart.
As it did so, the peoples of the Middle Ease fell back on identities which pre-date their modern states. Arab nationalism in Syrian and Iraqi strains has been replaced by nationalism in Sunni, Shia, Alawite, Armenian, Druze, Turkmen, Syriac, Kurdish and Assyrian flavors. Each identity involves reaching back to the past for something to hold on to in times of turmoil. Each nationalism involves utilizing history.
Nearly a year and a half ago I wrote on this blog that “Archaeology will have to come to terms with the fact that Arab nationalism is dead.”
The support offered for archaeology by twentieth-century Arab nationalist governments in many places is no more as new funding priorities are set. In others archaeology will continue albeit in the service of new nationalisms, creating new challenges in professional ethics and increasing the likelihood that archaeologists’ work will be used as a weapon for someone’s cause.
The challenges set forth here seem deeply distressing and often feel insurmountable. Responding and adapting to them is a challenge with which the new generation of students of the ancient Near East must grapple over the coming decades. Some answers may be found in building resilient platforms for heritage protection. Other answers may be found in critically examining our own presuppositions about the nature of cultural heritage and its preservation. New paradigms for ethics must seriously engage with people’s right to their own heritage and avoid the easy pitfall of declaring an overriding neo-colonial western interest in preserving ancient artifacts.
All is not lost, and technology and new methods of organization may enable heritage preservation in ways not possible before. But in order to find the answers we must first ask the right questions.
Article © Christopher Jones 2016.
This post is first in a new series for this blog which will review recent books from the fields of international security studies in order to examine what relevance their ideas may have for the future of cultural heritage preservation in the Middle East.
John Robb, Brave New War: The Next Stage of Terrorism and the End of Globalization. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, 2007. 208 pp.
Brave New War is a book whose prescience and influence has only grown as the Arab Spring has come and gone, leading it to be called “a classic” and “a rather brilliant synthesis” and frequently appear on military reading lists. And all for a slim book written by a first-time author, published by an academic press with only five pages of endnotes, whose foreword, written by longtime Atlantic correspondent James Fallows, warns that the book’s analysis “is in many ways darker than even the conventionally pessimistic view.”
John Robb began his career as an Air Force officer flying in special operations units before beginning a new career as a tech entrepreneur, where he helped to invent the RSS feed. His work, both in this book and on his blog Global Guerrillas, is in many ways the result of years of military and business experience.
The limited endnotes should not be taken as a mark against the book’s scholarly value but as indicative of the revolutionary nature of its analysis. Robb’s basic thesis is that nuclear weapons and wide economic integration have combined to bring an end to the era of state-versus-state conflict. The risks are too great, and the only state-versus-state wars are wars of choice where risk can be tightly controlled. Wars of the future will be fought at the sub-national level by what Robb terms “Superempowered Groups.” These are groups of people bonded by a shared cause who can leverage modern technology in such a way that they can fight states and win.
Advances in technology mean that the number of people needed in order to wage war continues to decrease, while advances in communications make it easier than ever for like-minded people to find others who share their cause. As a result, states are losing control of their borders, their economies, their finances and their populations. Robb goes so far as to suggest that the end result of these processes will be the creation of a “superempowered individual” who has “the ability to declare war on the world and win.” (p. 7-8, 17)
Superempowered groups have several advantages over states. Membership is defined by acceptance into the group rather than citizenship. They do not need to control territory and often have a non-hierarchical organizational structure, enabling them to make decisions quickly and free from bureaucracy. A superempowered group could be a terrorist organization, or a hacker cell, or a drug cartel – in each case their goal is to undermine the state. Failed states with no effective government or hollow states where government remains in power but does not control large swaths of territory allow these organizations to operate freely (p. 18-21, 80-93).
How can a small albeit superempowered group fight a state and win? Through a tactic Robb calls “Systems Disruption.” The goal of the tactic is to identify nodes in an economic, technological or other system whose destruction will cause that system to collapse. Such attacks are cheap to carry out but can cause massive economic damage. For instance, in the summer of 2004 insurgents in southern Iraq blew up a section of oil pipeline with a $2000 bomb and shut down all oil exports from southern Iraq for several days. The damage cost Iraq $500 million in export revenue, a return on investment of 250,000 times the cost of the attack (p. 95-100).
The most obvious nodes are usually well protected: Robb discusses the failed Al-Qaida attack on the oil processing facilities at Abaqiq, Saudi Arabia in February 2006 as an example of the difficulty of such attacks (p. 100-101). But modern systems are interdependent and susceptible to cascading failures. The oil pumping station in Basra, Iraq was well protected, so insurgents attacked fuel shipments to a nearby power plant instead. With no fuel the power plant shut down, cutting electricity to the pumping station and causing it to shut down as well (p. 103).
Superempowered groups are able to identify these weak points because there are dozens or even hundreds of them all trying to solve the same problems. Whereas “classical” insurgencies such as the Viet Cong or the FLN in Algeria maintained hierarchical organizations, in Iraq the United States fought at least seventy different armed factions with no unified command structure (p. 111-116). The result is what Robb terms “Open Source Warfare,” a metaphorical “bazaar of violence” were groups are constantly innovating and learning from each other. Eventually a sort of adaptive emergent intelligence rises from the system, where all the uncoordinated groups which make up an insurgency are collectively finding new targets to attack and new ways to protect themselves. As the state fails the cycle continues. New groups are formed as more and more people lose trust in the state and fall back on primary loyalties (p. 80-89, 116-127).
Attacks on Cultural Heritage as Systems Disruption in an Open Source War
Recent attacks on cultural heritage in the Middle East can be understood as a form of systems disruption. First, many cultural heritage sites are tourist magnets and are therefore economic nodes. Attacking them discourages other tourists and damages the economy, undermining the state’s revenue and its ability to protect its citizens’ lives and livelihoods. The recent attacks on the Bardo Museum in Tunisia, the Karnak Temple in Egypt, and last week’s suicide bombing at Sultanahmet Square in Istanbul were clearly carried out with this objective in mind.
But in addition to being economic nodes, cultural heritage sites serve as nodes in an ideological economy. Robb describes Al-Qaida’s bombing of the al-Askari Mosque in Samarra in 2006 as “a form of social system disruption” (p. 61-62). Not one person was killed or injured in the explosion, but the destruction of one of the holiest shrines in Shia Islam announced that Iraq’s Sunni insurgency was not fighting only to drive the Americans from Iraq but to subjugate its Shia population. The result was a surge of revenge attacks followed by campaigns of ethnic cleansing which turned the Iraqi insurgency into a full blown ethnic conflict which continues to the present day.
Worse, in an open source war effective tactics go ‘viral’ and are soon adopted by militant groups around the world. The Taliban were the first to use the destruction of cultural heritage as a public display of militant Islamist piety when they destroyed the Bamiyan Buddhas in 2001. A few years later the Taliban sought to replicate their feat by attacking Buddhist sites in Pakistan’s Swat Valley. Their successful display of power and zeal was replicated in Iraq in 2006 and again in Mali in 2012 when the group Ansar Dine began destroying Islamic heritage sites at Timbuktu. ISIS then elevated it to a level never before seen in the region.
Each group seeks to improve on the idea, and prove they are more dedicated and uncompromising than the others by destroying more spectacular targets (the al-Askari Mosque, the ruins of Nimrud, the temples of Palmyra) or by rooting out ever more obscure sites to prove how dedicated they are at eradicating undesirable elements. The tactic has proven eminently successful so far and we can expect many more groups to replicate the tactic and innovate new ways to use the destruction of cultural heritage in war.
Cultural Heritage as a Resilient Community?
Robb is pessimistic about the state’s ability to defeat an open source insurgency. The adaptive nature of the insurgency means some group will eventually find a way to counter the state’s tactics and the others will follow their example. “You can’t kill their leaders, because they don’t need them,” he argues. “You can’t reliably prevent future attacks, because they’re small scale, dispersed, and unpredictable. You can’t outmaneuver or outsmart them, because their innovative organization system makes that nearly impossible. Welcome to the open-source war.” (p. 110).
Centralizing the state’s security apparatus through mass surveillance, data collection and the application of force is unlikely to be effective because a police state is structurally incapable of matching the open source insurgency’s speed and innovation in decision-making. (Pre-emptively invading other countries and reconstructing their societies into states friendlier to the west is even less likely to work, and for many of the same reasons) (p. 156-164).
To date, the global response to the cultural heritage crisis has been that of the police state. Meetings are held in which international agreements between states are re-iterated. International law related to cultural heritage presumes the nation-state at every step. Codes of ethics revolve around countries of origin. We want states to post heavily armed guards and every site and museum, impose stiff penalties for looters, ban imports from at-risk countries, create computer databases of artifacts, deploy law enforcement to apply close scrutiny to buyers, and daydream about deploying United Nations troops to secure archaeological sites.
And some of these responses are at present perfectly reasonable, because in the contemporary world when the state fails heritage preservation is a disaster. Museums are emptied, their contents hidden or plundered. Archaeological sites are looted. Most people may not support either of these things happening to their historic sites, but they are powerless to stop them from happening.
Announcing that he is “ready to call it quits on the highly centralized and overly prescriptive proposals by governing bodies,” in the long term Robb argues that future security will be best secured through what he calls “Resilient Communities,” decentralized systems which are designed to limit the damage done by systems disruption.
Robb is not advocating backwoods survivalism. Rather, he suggests turning the systems which undergird modern society into platforms. Systems are hierarchical, platforms are flat. Everyone is free to interact with a platform as both a consumer and a provider. A platform is open, so users can innovate freely.
Robb uses the electrical grid as an example of a hierarchical system that could be turned into a resilient platform. The first step would be allowing users to also contribute power through plug-in solar panels or other methods, and setting pricing through a transparent system so that users were billed based on how much power they used versus how much they contributed. Power companies would become facilitators of exchange rather than mass-producers. The result would be a power grid far less susceptible to disruptions such as the 2003 Northeast blackout (and one that would likely be more environmentally friendly to boot). (p. 164-175).
What would a resilient community platform for cultural heritage preservation look like? Such a platform would avoid centralizing too many artifacts in one place but would have to be done in such a way that individuals not only retain the ability to access to all the artifacts but would also be able to contribute to the platform in some meaningful way. Contributing would also serve to increase a sense of ownership over cultural heritage within the community.
On the other hand, local control of artifacts means fewer resources available for conservation and study as well as even thornier ethical issues. Can the locals decide to destroy their cultural heritage? How is this heritage presented and how does one navigate layer upon layer of overlapping interests? More local control will almost certainly mean artifacts will sometimes be presented in ways that conflict with how the current powers controlling cultural heritage would want them to be.
This review is not meant to set forth a prescription for heritage preservation in the twenty-first century, but to begin to think about ways to approach the challenges that are being raised and how our current systems of heritage preservation can be adapted to this new world. How will archaeology in the future cope with failed or hollow states? Ignoring the issue is sadly no longer an option.
Article © Christopher Jones 2016.
While the heavy involvement of ISIS and other Syrian factions in antiquities trafficking has been conclusively demonstrated, the relative importance of these efforts to ISIS’ overall funding structure has never been comprehensively analyzed in the public domain. This article will examine all publicly available sources and attempt to estimate the importance of looted antiquities to ISIS’ finances.
(Please note that this is an open source analysis of a topic with few open sources, and as new information becomes available the conclusions presented here could radically change.)
Most media reports about antiquities looting in Syria written prior to the rise of ISIS in early 2014 did not provide any estimated dollar value for the amount of goods leaving the country. The exception was a February 12, 2013 piece by Taylor Luck for the Washington Post which interviewed several rebels affiliated with the Free Syrian Army who were involved in looting and smuggling artifacts and testified that the average batch of antiquities could fetch $50,000.
The first report to put a firm dollar amount on looting came on June 15, 2014 from Martin Chulov for The Guardian. On June 4, 2014 Iraqi police commandos killed ISIS leader Abu Abdulrahman al-Bilawi in his hideout and captured a large trove of USB sticks containing spreadsheets with detailed information about ISIS’ internal structure. Chulov interviewed a number of anonymous Iraqi and western intelligence officers about the documents, and according to one intelligence officer:
“They had taken $36m from al-Nabuk alone [an area in the Qalamoun mountains west of Damascus]. The antiquities there are up to 8,000 years old…Before this, the western officials had been asking us where they had gotten some of their money from, $50,000 here, or $20,000 there. It was peanuts. Now they know and we know. They had done this all themselves. There was no state actor at all behind them, which we had long known. They don’t need one.”
This statement was interpreted by many readers and other media sources as saying that ISIS had made $36 million from looting antiquities in the al-Nabuk region. However, the source did not say that all or even most of the $36 million haul came from antiquities rather than from other looted items (cars, consumer goods) or other sources of revenue.
Nevertheless, the “$36 million” figure began to be uncritically repeated in dozens of media reports, with some even extrapolating that figure to all of ISIS-held territory to claim that ISIS was making hundreds of millions of dollars from antiquities smuggling.
The lack of any real data to back up the figures began to attract criticism, especially from the antiquities dealer community who began to suspect that calls to aggressively fight antiquities trafficking in the name of fighting terrorism were actually a Trojan Horse being advanced by academics who wanted to shut down the legal antiquities trade for ideological reasons.
The Abu Sayyaf Raid
On May 15, 2015 a raid by American special forces on an ISIS safe house in a small village outside Deir ez-Zor in Syria killed ISIS leader Fathi Ben Awn Ben Jildi Murad al-Tunisi, better known by his nickname Abu Sayyaf, freed an 18-year old Yazidi woman, and captured a trove of documents.
Some of the documents captured during the raid were declassified several months later and have already been discussed in detail on this site, illustrating the inner workings of ISIS’ Diwan al-Rikaz or Department of Natural Resources. The documents showed that ISIS had systematized archaeological looting, with departments dedicated to the research, discovery and exploitation of new archaeological sites and a permit system to authorize diggers.
Contra the earlier Guardian report, they showed that ISIS classified antiquities as a natural resource alongside oil and minerals, as something to be extracted from the ground rather than as “ghanim” a.k.a looted items or spoils of war.
Most important, the raid captured a receipt book detailing the khums tax levied on authorized antiquities diggers in ISIS’ Wilayah al-Kheir (largely coterminous with Syria’s Deir ez-Zor governate, with some territory in Iraq). The book contained eight receipts, of which showed that in the period from November 2014 to May 2015 Abu Sayyaf had collected $265,000 in taxes on looted antiquities, which multiplied by the 20% tax rate showed that the value of looted antiquities was around $1.25 million.
However, these receipts were but a snapshot and could not show how much money ISIS had made in total from antiquities, or what percentage of their revenue was derived from antiquities looting.
At the same time, satellite photographs have shown that the most severely looted sites are in ISIS-controlled territory. In Deir ez-Zor governate the site of Mari saw industrial looting efforts begin as soon as ISIS took control of the site. A comparison of satellite photographs taken on August 4, 2011 and March 25, 2014 showed 165 new looter pits, an average of 0.17 new pits per day. After ISIS took control of the area in April 2014, a new photograph taken on November 11, 2014 showed that 1,286 pits were dug during this period, a rate of 5.5 new pits per day.
Overall, sites controlled by ISIS have shown a much higher percentage of heavy looting than in territory controlled by other factions. While the percentage of sites that show signs of looting is comparable to other factions, out of 82 sites controlled by ISIS, 35 (42.7%) had experienced severe or moderate looting, which is fifteen more than sites controlled by all other factions combined. Out of all sites which had experienced severe or moderate looting 63% were in territory controlled by ISIS. (However it should be noted that at least one of these sites, Dura-Europos, had already been severely looted before ISIS took control of the area).
Nevertheless, the evidence from the organizational charts as well as the massive and systematic looting of Mari show that ISIS is clearly devoting significant time and energy to exploiting archaeological sites. They must be expecting significant returns on their investment.
Earlier this month, the New Yorker published an article questioning some of the claims which have been made about the amount of money which ISIS and other factions are making from looted antiquities. Several antiquities dealers and artifact appraisers argued that there is no large market for Near Eastern antiquities in the United States and that many of the artifacts presented as being looted were not valuable items. According to dealer Randall Hixenbaugh, “When we say that these antiquities are worth millions of dollars, I think that prompts people to pick up shovels in eastern Syria. Are we not adding to the problem right now, by hyperbolic assessments of value?”
Hixenbaugh’s argument deserves careful consideration. Are media reports of hundreds of millions of dollars being made from antiquities sales causing people and militant organizations to dig up archaeological sites in hopes of getting rich?
To test this hypothesis I gathered a data set of articles harvested from Google News. I manually compiled links from the first sixty pages of search results for the keywords “archaeology looting Syria,” producing 250 articles (to see the data set, click here). To measure rates of looting I rely on satellite photographs showing the growth of looting pits which have been published in several articles. Since most of these photographs were taken before December 2014, I chose to chronologically limit the sample of news articles to those published between January 1, 2011 and December 31, 2014.
The limits of the data set should be noted. The data only includes media outlets whose articles appear in Google News searches, and only includes articles written in English. Since the goal is to chart coverage rather than facts, no criterion was set for reliability of the sources. It was also not possible to weight articles by readership, although articles from prominent publications are more likely to appear in Google News searches.
The results can be seen in the above chart. Articles about looting were scarce until late 2012, experienced a slight rise in early 2013 and steadily increased at the end of that year and the beginning of 2014. As the capture of Mosul, the attack on Sinjar, and the siege of Kobane riveted the world’s attention in the fall of 2014 the number of articles rapidly increased.
Therefore, if media speculation were driving looting we would expect looting to increase in the summer of 2013, and rapidly increase following the summer of 2014.
What do the satellites say? Imagery is generally available only for major sites:
Ebla: Photos showed no evidence of new looting pits in photos taken on December 6, 2011; September 27, 2012; January 17, 2013 or August 18, 2013. However between August 18, 2013 and August 4, 2014 at least 45 new looting pits appeared on the tell. Between September 27, 2012 and August 4, 2014 the site was also home to an expanding military presence by Syrian government forces.
Mari: Comparison of photos taken on August 4, 2011 with one taken on March 25, 2014 show 165 new looter pits, an average of 0.17 new pits per day. From March 25 to November 11, 2014 looting advanced on an industrial scale: 1,286 pits were dug during this period at a rate of 5.5 new pits per day. What changed was that in April 2014 the tell and the surrounding area were captured by ISIS, whose interest in industrialized looting in Deir-ez-Zor province has been well documented.
Dura-Europos: The timing is less precise for this site as there are only two images. The first, dated August 4, 2011, shows the site relatively undisturbed. The latter photo taken April 2, 2014 shows a moonscape. According to the AAAS report, counting the pits was impossible as “the pits overlap so that it is impossible to distinguish one unique pit from another.” This looting took place prior to ISIS taking control of the site in April 2014.
Apamea: Photos show that Apamea was looted extensively and early. Photos taken on July 19, 2011 and April 3, 2012 show that in that time frame thousands of looter pits were opened in the government-owned portion of the site. Further images taken on September 27 and November 4 of 2012 show pits beginning to encroach into privately held areas of the site. Like Ebla, Apamea was also garrisoned by government troops, which according to Casana suggests “that the military was either directly involved or at least tacitly complicit in the looting.”
Thoul Nayel: This late antique/early Islamic site was extensively looted before the war, and imagery from April 2011 and October 2012 shows that the looting continued during that time.
Tell Chuera: Photos show extensive looting in a specific area outside the main city wall sometime between September 2012 and September 2013.
Tell Ashtara: Photos taken in August 2011 and August 27, 2013 show a number of very large holes appearing on the mound. The holes are much larger than typical looter pits but less regular than military entrenchments, and Casana speculates they may have been dug by less disciplined Free Syrian Army forces.
Tell Jifar: Looter pits were visible in photos taken in 2003 and 2007. An image taken April 3, 2012 indicates an expansion in looter pits alongside occupation of the site by Syrian government military forces.
This brief survey does not show a correlation between media reports and site looting. The only sites whose looting correlates with an increase in media reports are Ebla and Mari. Apamea, Tell Chuera, Thoul Nayel, Tell Ashtara, and Tell Jifar were plundered before the role of looting in the conflict became widely reported. At Dura-Europos the data is not precise enough.
What’s more, alternative explanations exist for the increase in both Ebla and Mari, for the looting of each site coincides with a change in the site’s occupation by one of the warring factions. In these cases, it is possible that the new occupants of the site were encouraged by media reports. This is more likely in the case of Ebla than in Mari, since Mari is part of a systematic effort at site exploitation. However, one data point does not establish a pattern.
The lack of any universal pattern to the looting seems to indicate that it is driven by local rather than global factors. The universal factors which induce looting are the lack of security and desperation induced by war. The determining factors for what sites get looted and when seem to be entirely local.
However, this by no means disproves that media exaggerations can encourage looting. Indeed, one could argue that the type of looting most likely to be inspired by media reports is the type carried out by small groups of people at less well known sites. A few more looter pits appearing at hundreds of small tells would be much harder to track.
In conclusion, there is no evidence to support the hypothesis that media coverage encourages looting, however, it cannot be fully disproved and should continue to be considered as a possibility as new evidence arises.
 American Association for the Advancement of Science, Geospatial Technologies and Human Rights Project, Ancient History, Modern Destruction: Assessing the Current Status of Syria’s Tentative World Heritage Sites Using High-Resolution Satellite Imagery, Part One, by Susan Wolfinbarger, Jonathan Drake, Eric Ashcroft and Katharyn Hanson (Washington, DC: American Association for the Advancement of Science, 2014); Jesse Casana and Mitra Panahipour, “Notes on a Disappearing Past: Satellite-Based Monitoring of Looting and Damage to Archaeological Sites in Syria,” Journal of Eastern Mediterranean Archaeology and Heritage Studies 2, No. 2 (2014): 128-151.
 AAAS, Ancient History, Modern Destruction, 10-16.
 AAAS, Ancient History, Modern Destruction, 19-21.
 AAAS, Ancient History, Modern Destruction, 5-9.
 Casana and Panahipour, “Notes on a Disappearing Past,” 129, 131.
 Casana and Panahipour, “Notes on a Disappearing Past,” 136.
 Casana and Panahipour, “Notes on a Disappearing Past,” 144-146.
 Casana and Panahipour, “Notes on a Disappearing Past,” 145, 147.
 Casana and Panahipour, “Notes on a Disappearing Past,” 131-135.
Article © Christopher Jones 2015.