Antiquities looting under regime, rebels and jihadists in Syria

Assisted by researchers at the Penn Cultural Heritage Center (at Pennsylvania Museum) and the Smithsonian Institution, the Geospatial Technologies and Human Rights Project (of the Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)) has conducted satellite image analysis of Syria’s twelve tentative (nominated) UNESCO World Heritage sites.

It has yet to report on six of those twelve, but it has published evidence concerning the other six (Dura Europos, Ebla, Hama’s Waterwheels, Mari, Raqqa and Ugarit). And, of those six, four have been ‘heavily looted and damaged’ – Dura-Europos, Ebla, Mari and Raqqa. Notably, it appears to reaffirm that there is looting within regime and rebel territories as well as under jihadist rule.

“Industrial-scale” looting at Dura-Europos under the Free Syrian Army (FSA)

Kathy Wren’s report on the AAAS team’s work also included ground-level photographs of the looting pits at the ‘most extensive[ly]’ looted site, Dura-Europos (at least one of which had been previously published by le Patrimoine Archéologique Syrien en Danger on the 2nd of April 2014).

Wren explained that the AAAS analysis showed that ‘76% of the area within the city wall had been damaged by April 2014, and the looting pits were so close together it was impossible to distinguish individual pits’. Apparently, it was almost levelled by a 300(?)-strong looting workforce. Roman archaeologist Simon James judged that they must have been ‘bankrolled to a massive extent’ to conduct the “industrial-scale” looting.

The Islamic State took over Dura-Europos in September. In November, the Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM), which operates in regime territory, said that looting at Dura-Europos had stopped. Considering the damage, if that’s true, it may be because the site has been mined out. So, it seems that the worst damage, the industrial-scale looting of the site, was done when the site was under Free Syrian Army control (against the local community’s wishes).

Militarisation and looting at Ebla (Tell Mardikh) under regime control and/or joint rebel-jihadist control?

Ebla is in a territory that appears to have been under regime control until March-May 2014, when mixed rebel and jihadist forces took control of the area. It appears to have been militarised between the 18th of August 2013 and the 4th of August 2014. Within the same period, looters dug 45 new holes. So, it is not clear whether the looting occurred when it was under regime control, rebel-and-jihadist control, or both. Certainly, Apamea suffered ‘stunning’ looting under regime control.

Significant looting at Mari (Tell Hariri) under predominantly Islamist factional rule then Islamic State rule?

On the 4th of August 2011, Mari remained unlooted; by the 25th of March 2014, a 500(?)-strong team of looters had dug 165 more holes (0.17 pits per day); by the 11th of November 2014, looters had dug another 1,286 holes (5.5 pits per day). (The satellite image data seem to suggest that either these huge teams plundered sites in incredibly intensive episodes or the reports of hundreds-strong workforces were inaccurate.)

As Paul Barford observed, at least the earliest looting work was ‘very likely to be the work of the villagers whose houses are just nearby (and who may have worked on the sites when the archaeologists were digging here)’. That had already started by the 21st of December 2012, while the Abu Kamal/Albukamal region ‘came under the control of ISIS in June 2014‘.

Between those dates, it was under the shared control of Jabhat al-Nusra-affiliated Islamist Kata’ib Junud al-Haq, Jabhat al-Nusra-aligned Islamist Katiba Bayariq al-Sunna, Free Syrian Army -affiliated Kata’ib Allahu Akbar, Free Syrian Army brigade Liwa Allahu Akbar, independent anti-regime brigade Liwa al-Mujahid Omar al-Mukhtar, and independent Islamist brigade Liwa al-Qadisiya al-Islamiya, and it was seriously contested by the Islamic State from April until the end of June.

There do not appear to be satellite images that would identify which authority oversaw the most looting. However, since there was comparatively little looting before the fight for Albukamal, it seems reasonable to assume that most of the looting happened after Islamic State conquest.

Islamic State urbicide in Raqqa

This report focused on the evidence that Raqqa has suffered targeted demolitions of ‘cultural sites located within the UNESCO Tentative World Heritage site boundary‘, which appear to be acts of Islamic State cleansing of the territory. Elsewhere, there is evidence that Raqqa district has suffered significant looting too, for example in Dibsi Afnan. Apparently, at least at Tell Sheikh Hasan near Raqqa city, local community activity has ended the plunder.


I found several of these sources indirectly, thanks to the massive public record-keeping of Heritage for Peace.

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