Palmyra: looting under the rebels, the Assad regime and the Islamic State?

As I’ve worked and reworked this, I’ve found (and removed) half-finished sentences from previous edits, and I’m posting it now because of the latest developments, but if I rediscover forgotten information, I will add it. It is too long to read, and it is a bit rat-a-tat-tat (in jumping from section to section), but you can skip to “flogging propaganda” for my thoughts on the Islamic State’s destruction of antiquities from Palmyra.

Background

I first discussed the looting and smuggling of antiquities from Palmyra on the 12th of May 2013. This post has been nearly-finished and nearly-posted since soon after I started drafting it on the 26th of March 2015. I kept putting off posting it, partly as I checked and re-checked the file data for all of the accessible copies of the images and tried to think through every possible scenario that might explain the evidence.

When the looting of Palmyra is considered, it is important to remember that, even before the war, 53% of the local population lived on less than a dollar a day.

Evidence and attention, attention and evidence

I searched Google News for reports that mentioned “Palmyra”, “Syria”, “antiquities” and “looting” in each year of the conflict. Inevitably, there are missed sources and false positives, but the results are not unrepresentative: in 2011, 1 result; in 2012, 27 results; in 2013, 35 results; in 2014, 55 results; in the first six months of 2015, 88 results.

There was more discussion of Palmyra (46 results) in the first month after the Islamic State took control than there was in all of 2012, when smugglers gave interviews to the media about their trafficking of conflict antiquities from the rebels and the regime (across the country), and in all of 2013, when rebels gave interviews to the media about their looting (in general).

There was more discussion of Palmyra in the first half of 2015 than there was in all of 2014, when a rebel gave an interview to the media about their looting of Palmyra (before the regime took control in 2012).

Churnalism

As coined by Waseem Zakir in conversation with Tony Harcup, and investigated by Nick Davies in Flat Earth News, “churnalism” is the recycling of news agency reports and (generally vested interests’) press releases as news articles. Zakir explained how ‘reactive…. reporters churn [material] out’ (almost) as they receive it; ‘reporters are becoming churnalists‘.

I’ve occasionally used the term more generally, to describe the wilful, nigh-plagiaristic recycling of original news reports (such as the ones that bastardised the Times’ report that referred to the looting of Apamea). Here, the problem is not quite press releases, but more or less official sources, whether their information is offered or invited. And it seems to be an increasingly pervasive problem in reporting of illicit trade and political violence in Syria and Iraq.

It is difficult or impossible for journalists to investigate these matters personally. And it is unrealistic to expect journalists to have a deep understanding of cultural property matters or (problematic) evidence bases, let alone the peculiar politics and economics of cultural heritage that often make cultural heritage professionals both exceptional targets and exceptionally vulnerable ones. But, for one reason or another, more and more false information is entering the public record; and it is being used more and more actively.

I am not commenting and will not comment on any specific professionals

Bad sources may be active propagandists or complicit puppets. But they may be exploited because they are genuine professionals, unknowingly fed bad information so that they spread it and lend it credibility. Or they may be forced with direct or indirect threats to them or others. And they may publicly comply, in order to protect themselves and others, but also secretly record evidence or otherwise act to protect communities and their cultural heritage.

Cultural heritage workers are doing that in Syria and I know a number of cultural heritage workers who have done or are doing that in similarly difficult situations elsewhere. When I name sources, it is because they are the named sources, not because they are necessarily responsible for the evidence or the interpretation. They are, after all, trying to stop an activity that benefits the parties who are warring around them. Cultural heritage workers have been killed for their work in these conflicts.

It is also obvious but still important to remember that, even in peacetime under repressive regimes, apart from crony appointments, people undertake a community service regardless of or despite the nature of the authorities in control rather than because of it. Nonetheless, as Stephennie Mulder has observed, this Reuters article on the recovery of loot from Palmyra ‘reads like propaganda for Assad’.

The propaganda of rescue and the reality of abandonment

Rescue

Originally, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reported that the Assad regime had ‘evacuated most‘ or ‘all‘ of the civilians. (The SOHR may have heard that from regime sources, as ARA News relayed that they had claimed that regime forces had ‘evacuated the [remaining] citizens‘ after the Islamic State’s incursion into the city.)

Hence, when the Director-General of Antiquities and Museums, Mamoun Abdulkarim, claimed that ‘hundreds and hundreds‘ of statues and other artefacts had been ‘transferred out of the city‘, it appeared an acceptable use of resources. However, it is difficult to reconcile the sources.

On the 17th of May, cultural expert Diana Darke said that “most” of Palmyra museum’s statues and reliefs (carved wall panels) had ‘long since been transported… to undisclosed locations for safekeeping‘. Indeed, on the 19th of March, antiquities official Ahmed Deeb had told Reuters’ Kinda Makieh that ‘all‘ museums had been ’emptied’ in 2013, whereupon their artefacts were put in protective storage. Then again, Abdulkarim only said that the antiquities service had been ‘progressively transferring the antiquities to Damascus’ and that there was ‘almost nothing left in the museum’ by the 23rd of May 2015.

Yet, on the 14th of May, pseudonymous anti-regime activist Khaled al-Homsi had told the New York Times’ Anne Barnard and Hwaida Saad that antiquities officials had been evacuating the museum’s easily-transported artefacts only since the start of the month. And his testimony is not necessarily reliable, because he used the claim to highlight that the regime ‘had not warned residents to leave‘.

Furthermore, also on the 14th, antiquities director Mamoun Abdulkarim had said that cultural heritage workers would ‘try to ensure the safety of artefacts found in Palmyra’s archaeological digs over the years and now housed in an adjacent museum’. On the 15th, Abdulkarim had said that they ‘[could] protect the statues and artefacts’ and Channel 4 News interviewed Abdulkarim and relayed that ‘smaller artefacts [could] be removed from the site before an IS breakthrough’.

(In addition, on or around the 17th, Homs province’s governor Talal al-Barazi had reassured Syrian state media – the Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) – that ‘Palmyra [was] safe and the road linking Homs with Palmyra [was] absolutely safe’.)

Abandonment

As far as I can tell, the evacuation of artefacts cannot have started before the 17th. At the very least, no significant quantity can have been moved before then. First of all, the antiquities service repeatedly had the opportunity to explain that the artefacts had been removed yet instead stated that they could be removed; evidently, it gave Channel 4 News the impression that not even the smaller artefacts had been evacuated.

The UK’s Channel 4 News and Russia’s NTD TV broadcast video that appeared to show portable antiquities on location at Palmyra museum. However, it showed looted antiquities that had been confiscated, which the antiquities service said had been ‘documented… and transferred… to safe places to study and learn more about them’, in the same place that they had been documented. It is not clear whether those safe places were simply the museum and other stores or whether the photos and the video depicted (the interior of) a hiding place.

Palmyra antiquities under threat from Islamic State (c) Channel 4 News, 15th May 2015: 00h01m46s

Palmyra antiquities under threat from Islamic State
(c) Channel 4 News, 15th May 2015: 00h01m46s

Palmyra antiquities under threat from Islamic State (c) Channel 4 News, 15th May 2015: 00h01m54s

Palmyra antiquities under threat from Islamic State
(c) Channel 4 News, 15th May 2015: 00h01m54s

Palmyra antiquities under threat from Islamic State (c) Channel 4 News, 15th May 2015: 00h01m58s

Palmyra antiquities under threat from Islamic State
(c) Channel 4 News, 15th May 2015: 00h01m58s

Palmyra antiquities under threat from Islamic State (c) Channel 4 News, 15th May 2015: 00h02m14s

Palmyra antiquities under threat from Islamic State
(c) Channel 4 News, 15th May 2015: 00h02m14s

Plus, on the 17th, at the same time as the regime was reassuring the international community about the archaeological site, independent professionals and local volunteers in the Day After Project – which is coordinated by Syrian archaeologist Amr Al Azm – had resorted to hiding or burying antiquities, and Syrian archaeologist and Heritage for Peace worker Isber Sabrine was appealing for military reinforcements to protect the city and ‘helicopters to remove objects to safety‘. (The regime sent in some reinforcements on the 17th.)

If “most” objects had “long since” been evacuated by the antiquities service, if “all” objects had been evacuated two years before, why did volunteers have to take it upon themselves to hide material and why did archaeologists have to petition the state to conduct the evacuation? Indeed, how could they have done so?

As the Seattle Times relayed on the 20th, during the Islamic State’s final assault on Tadmor, residents had ‘described soldiers and the police fleeing, wounded civilians unable to reach hospitals and museum workers hurrying to pack up antiquities‘. Abdulkarim himself had told Reuters that ‘hundreds of objects were being removed to safety’. (Yet again, that highlights the selflessness of workers who endangered their own safety in order to protect their community’s past.)

By contrast, in 2014, 13,000 objects were packed by three workers in a week and evacuated from Deir ez-Zor in the spare space on a military cargo flight. While the types of artefacts may have speeded the packing (if there were very small pieces and/or somewhat pre-packed assemblages in storage), this suggests that, if the evacuation of fewer than 1,000 antiquities from Palmyra had begun significantly earlier, it would have been completed before the arrival of the Islamic State.

In fact, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) stated that just one-third of the city’s 170,000-200,000 residents (local citizens and 50,000-80,000 internally-displaced persons) had managed to escape before regime forces had ‘trapped‘ them, ‘not allow[ed]‘ them to leave, ‘prevented‘ their flight until after the forces themselves had fled. They seem to have been trapped on the orders of regime officers who abandoned the civilians and the conscripts to their fate.

Propaganda

On the 23rd of May, an unnamed senior U.S. defence official alleged that there was a ‘tacit understanding‘ that Palmyra was ‘off limits to airstrikes’. Yet, on the 21st, anti-Assad Coordinating Committee member Khaled Omran had correctly predicted that the false claims of the evacuation of civilians were made to excuse ‘imminent bombing raid[s] that [would] make no distinction between Daesh and us’ – raids that had been launched by the 25th.

Events suggest that the allocation of resources to the evacuation of statues was a gross dereliction of duty towards civilians (and indeed towards conscripts). I am in no way challenging those who called for the evacuation of antiquities before the onset of emergency. And I am in no way condemning the volunteers and professionals who risked their lives to put their community’s cultural heritage beyond the Islamic State’s reach.

Still, events suggest that the regime’s last-minute evacuation of statues was a grand act of propaganda, ironically to make the regime appear civilised, a cultured alternative to the barbaric Islamic State. That, and the wider media campaign about protecting cultural property by a regime that has militarised archaeological sites and is barrel-bombing historic cities, demonstrate that information about trafficking and policing, too, will be an instrument of propaganda.

Looted antiquities from Palmyra

In early April 2012, in a discussion of the “most vulnerable” places in Syria, which the Agence France-Presse (AFP) paraphrased as ‘strife-torn areas that have fallen outside the full control of the regime‘, the director of museums for the cultural heritage service in regime territory, Hiba al-Sakhel, claimed: ‘In Apamea, we have a video showing looters removing mosaics with drills…. And in Palmyra there is a lot of looting and clandestine digging.’

It is true that Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters looted and smuggled antiquities to Turkey before the regime gained absolute control – FSA rebel Abu Abd el-Tadmuri admitted it – and that the regime and the rebels continued to fight over the territory afterwards. But the regime had gained control by mid-February 2012. By the 1st of May 2012, Syrian Archaeological Heritage in Danger (le Patrimoine Archéologique Syrien en Danger) had noted tanks, heavy weaponry and fortifications near the necropolis.

Moreover, on the 4th of February 2013, the antiquities service in regime territory itself declared: ‘Illegal excavation acts in unexplored tombs in Palmyra have been put an end to lately, and the situation has [come] under control and the site [has come] under protection.’ Implicitly, then, it acknowledged that looting had continued throughout the first year that the site was under military occupation.

Occasionally and temporarily, between the 1st of February, 18th of February, 11th of March and the 15th of June 2013, Assadist forces lost control of part or all of Palmyra. There was some fighting at – and bombardment of – the site on the 3rd of August 2013.

Yet the state was (fairly completely and fairly continuously) in control and remained so. The Association for the Protection of Syrian Archaeology (APSA) has secured video evidence of rocket launchers at the site on the 10th of April 2013, bulldozers and other earthmovers being used on the site and rockets being fired from the site on the 30th of April 2013, tanks on the site on the 12th of May 2013, heavy equipment at the site on the 9th of February 2014, heavy weapons on the site by the 15th of March 2014, further fortification of the site by the 20th of July 2014, heavy equipment at the site on the 17th and heavy weapons on the site on the 22nd of August 2014, further evidence of the movement of earth with machines by the 13th of September 2014…

In 2014, antiquities official Mohammad al-Assad stated that “armed groups” (rebel forces) had ‘arrived in February 2013 and set up in the huge palm groves to the south until the army chased them out [in] September [2013].’ So the regime had control of most of the site by February 2013 and the entire zone by September 2013 and kept it from then on. However, looting continued.

Since the Temple of Bel was ‘in the line of fire’ between the Assad regime forces in (the rest of) the site to the north and the Free Syrian Army in the groves to the south, it is not clear who ‘ransacked‘ the store next to the temple. However, regime forces had militarised the Valley of the Tombs, so the rebels cannot have been responsible for that plunder.

Illicit extraction of cultural assets may not have been (visibly) intensive (though that may be because the construction of the tombs covered the evidence from satellite view), but it was extensive, after the Free Syrian Army had been driven out, yet before the Islamic State had taken over.

Confiscated antiquities from Palmyra

In March 2014, Palmyra Museum director Khalil al-Hariri stated: ‘Since the army took control of the region, I have got 130 pieces back.’ Confusingly, in March 2015, the director of museums in regime territory, Ahmad Deeb, stated that “special” ‘authorities in Palmyra’ had recovered more than 120 antiquities, ‘the most important of which were tombstones that were secretly excavated’.

The antiquities service in regime territory repeatedly reported the confiscation of antiquities that had been looted from Palmyra, identifiably on the 3rd of May 2013 (in Lebanon), on the 17th of May 2013 (in Lebanon), twice on the 13th of June 2013 (in Italy and in Palmyra), on the 19th of June 2013 (both in Palmyra), on the 6th of March 2014 (in Palmyra), on the 16th of March 2014 (elsewhere in regime territory), on the 30th of March 2014 (in Palmyra), on the 1st of April 2014 (elsewhere in regime territory), on the 19th of June 2014 (in Palmyra), on the 25th of August 2014 (in Palmyra) and on the 22nd of November 2014 (elsewhere in regime territory)…

While there will have been some delay between looting and seizure and reporting – particularly when the material was seized after it had been smuggled to Lebanon or Italy – all of those reports were made more than a year after the regime had occupied and fortified the site. Half of the reports were made more than two years after the occupation and continually intensified fortification of the site.

Rebel Abu Abd al-Tedmuri, who spoke to the Christian Science Monitor’s Dominique Soguel about his and his comrades’ looting of the site before the regime’s occupation, said that he had stashed some of his loot locally but smuggled most of it to Turkey.

So, it seems implausible that all ten local hauls were stashes of antiquities that had been looted before the regime controlled the area, especially when we know from the sales in Turkey and the seizures in Lebanon and Italy that illicit antiquities from this site are being smuggled out and reaching international markets. UNESCO shared the antiquities service’s evidence that ’22 funeral busts and the headstone of a child’ were looted from one tomb alone in the first week of November 2014.

Also, unless Syria is achieving truly exceptional levels of recovery within the city, which would itself bring into question how looters were able to remove the material from the site in the first place, the publicised confiscations represent the interception of a tiny fraction of the total number of trafficked antiquities.

Looting of Palmyra under regime control

Moreover, the antiquities service documented that looting spread in 2013 and published photos of damage to the southeastern necropolis and the Valley of the Tombs from looting between November 2014 and March 2015.

Those claims and more have been affirmed by remote survey. Despite the obstacles to satellite imaging, the United Nations Operational Satellite Applications Programme (UNOSAT) of the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) published an investigation by Einar Bjørgo, Giovanni Boccardi, Emma Cunliffe, Manuel Fiol, Traci Jellison, Wendi Pedersen and Caryn Saslow, which managed to document evidence of looting, as well as the clearance of some archaeological features and the construction of military installations over others, which disguise any looting of those places.

Some looting can only be dated to between the 10th of October 2009 and the 1st of September 2012, so it cannot be dated to a particular period before the conflict, during rebel control or during regime control. But some looting demonstrably happened between the 1st of September 2012 and the 26th of October 2014, when the site was under fortified regime occupation.

The Valley of the Tombs (the western necropolis), the northwest necropolis, the southeast necropolis and the Camp of Diocletian suffered looting, and the southwest necropolis suffered ‘looting using heavy machinery‘, between the 1st of September 2012 and the 14th of November 2013. The western necropolis suffered looting between the 14th of November 2013 and the 8th of March 2014, when there were also reports of looting at the Camp of Diocletian and the Temple of Bel.

The Syrian Heritage Initiative (SHI) of the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR) perceives a pattern of looting of ‘sites [that have been] occupied by military forces’, looting ‘during [the] militarization of [the] archaeological site by SARG [Syrian Arab Republic Government]’ forces.

While sympathetic soldiers may have turned a blind eye to desperate locals’ attempts to make ends meet, desperate locals do not have heavy machinery. Even if, by chance, looting with heavy machinery at the site is not being conducted by the military with the heavy machinery that it has at the site, it must be being conducted by organised criminal allies of the military, and the military will not be permitting industrial plunder for nothing.

Soldiers on video with antiquities from Palmyra

As I noted in a piece on Reuters last year (and as was recently reiterated by the Wall Street Journal, the Australian and me on Conflict Antiquities),

Grainy video from soldiers fighting for President Bashar al-Assad’s regime at Palmyra[/Tadmur/Tadmor]… shows delicate grave reliefs of the dead, ripped out, gathered up and loaded into the back of their truck. The soldiers present the heads of decapitated statues to the camera.

Such video of handling of statues and sculptures by armed forces has circulated since 2012. Some material had been collected at the site by the 21st of July 2012 and loaded for transport by the 17th of August 2012.

By the 1st of May 2012, too, Syrian Archaeological Heritage in Danger had noted ‘excavations whose objective is not only the positioning of weapons but also looting‘. And by the 19th of September 2012, Emma Cunliffe had reported that Palmyra was ‘thought to have been heavily looted, allegedly by soldiers’.

But already before then – according to file data, after the conclusive occupation of the site by the regime, on the 18th of February 2012 – there was video evidence of handling of antiquities by soldiers who used regime army (rather than non-hierarchical revolutionary) terminology. At 00h00m22s in a video that has since been removed from its (known) location on YouTube (though it may be this one, which – due to its reupload – has metadata that only goes back to the 20th of November 2013, according to Gspot, or the 19th of November 2013, according to Exiftool]), ‘one of the uniformed men point[ed] out a piece and ask[ed]…: “They wanted this one, right?”, which suggest[ed] that the pieces were [being] moved and possibly passed on to others’.

Fortunately, I found Marg Bar Diktator‘s post and clicked through its Syrian Emigrant Rebel source before it was removed from Facebook. That led me to the source post on Syrian Archaeological Heritage in Danger.

'Two days ago, Syrian activists shared leaks that show Assad's soldiers in the process of pillaging the archaeological heritage of Palmyra. [Depuis deux jours, les activistes syriens ont partagé des fuites montrant des militaires d'Assad en train de piller le patrimoine archéologique de Palmyre.]' (Marg Bar Diktator, 19th August 2012)

‘Two days ago, Syrian activists shared leaks that show Assad’s soldiers in the process of pillaging the archaeological heritage of Palmyra. [Depuis deux jours, les activistes syriens ont partagé des fuites montrant des militaires d’Assad en train de piller le patrimoine archéologique de Palmyre.]’
(Marg Bar Diktator, 19th August 2012)

'Palmyra in danger: The loyalist army amuses itself with Syrian heritage. [Palmyre en danger: L'armée loyaliste s'amuse avec le patrimoine syrien.]' (le Patrimoine Archéologique Syrien en Danger, 16e août 2012)

‘Palmyra in danger: The loyalist army amuses itself with Syrian heritage. [Palmyre en danger: L’armée loyaliste s’amuse avec le patrimoine syrien.]’
(le Patrimoine Archéologique Syrien en Danger, 16e août 2012)

Archaeologist Cheikhmous Ali exposes fabrication of reports on Syrian antiquities (Cheikhmous Ali, All4Syria, 23rd August 2012)

Archaeologist Cheikhmous Ali exposes fabrication of reports on Syrian antiquities
(Cheikhmous Ali, All4Syria, 23rd August 2012)

Palmyre pillage des objets archéologiques (Association for the Protection of Syrian Archaeology (APSA), YouTube, 17th August 2012)

Palmyre pillage des objets archéologiques
(Association for the Protection of Syrian Archaeology (APSA), YouTube, 17th August 2012)

By the 13th of September 2014, the Association for the Protection of Syrian Archaeology (APSA) had reported ‘excavations with [a] bulldozer in the archaeological zone [fouilles avec bulldozer dans la zone archéologique]’, but it could not be confirmed whether that activity was illicit extraction or military fortification (or both).

In February 2015, the Bureau of International Theft’s Lieutenant Colonel Nicholas Saad told the BBC that antiquities were ‘coming [into Lebanon] from all Syria, but more from the Islamic State part – ar-Raqqa, Palmyra, all the places that there is [sic – are] archaeologic[al] things’, highlighting Palmyra as a source of looted antiquities when it was still under regime control.

Is there an alternative explanation?

By the 12th of March 2014, the United Nations Educational, Social and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) had published a gallery of photos on destruction of Palmyra’s historical monuments, which included one where a regime soldier held up a confiscated sculpture for the camera and one where confiscated sculptures had been loaded into a truck for transport by soldiers. So (unsurprisingly), soldiers are engaged in antiquities recovery operations and antiquities are transported without packing or protection (other than a blanket between them and the chassis of the truck).

Destruction of Palmyra's historical monuments (c) UNESCO, by 12th March 2014 (a)

Destruction of Palmyra’s historical monuments
(c) UNESCO, by 12th March 2014 (a)

Destruction of Palmyra's historical monuments (c) UNESCO, by 12th March 2014 (b)

Destruction of Palmyra’s historical monuments
(c) UNESCO, by 12th March 2014 (b)

On the 8th of July 2014, the former director of excavations for the Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums in regime territory, Michel al-Maqdissi, shared an image and captioned it: ‘Looted funerary bust from Palmyra flanked by two Syrian soldiers.’

Looted funerary bust from Palmyra flanked by two Syrian soldiers (Michel al-Maqdissi, ASOR, 8th July 2014)

Looted funerary bust from Palmyra flanked by two Syrian soldiers
(Michel al-Maqdissi, ASOR, 8th July 2014)

While al-Maqdissi dated – to the day – the satellite images of Apamea and Dura Europos before and after their extensive looting, he did not say in which year that photo had been taken. However, he did not say in which year a contrasting Islamic State photo had been released either, so that does not reveal anything. Its exif data, both from the Image File Directory (IFD0) and Extensible Metadata Platform (XMP), suggest that it was created and modified on the 19th of April 2014. Obviously, since it had been circulating publicly for nearly two years by then, that date must have been a useless product of file administration.

The Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums has not published the contested image in any of its reports of confiscated antiquities from Palmyra. Yet that evidence is (at least technically) inconclusive, because there were no English-language reports of seizures in 2012 (so non-publication may have been standard practice), and there were no Arabic-language reports in 2012 that mentioned Palmyra and displayed that image (but absence of evidence is not evidence of absence). Still, if the image was first published by the regime, why did it then take that particular piece of evidence offline, when it put masses of other evidence online? Why has it never since republished that image?

(We also know that those antiquities were handled by regime soldiers between the 21st of July and the 17th of August 2012, while no antiquities were evacuated until between the 17th and the 20th of May 2015, so the original reports cannot have been rebel propaganda that misappropriated records of the antiquities being taken into protective custody or put into safe storage either.)

Struggles within public services in regime territory?

Showing how complex the problem is, Syrian authorities (apparently) recover a lot before it leaves regime territory. Judith Weingarten observed that they ‘must sometimes get tip-offs‘ because they, for instance, ‘intercepted three different lots of looted Palmyran antiquities’ in March 2014 alone. They recovered more from ‘terrorists [rebel forces]’ who had conducted ‘illegal digs‘ in June, recovered yet more in August, before they lost even more in September, then they seized still more in November.

And those were just the cases that I was able to identify immediately. In total, Syrian authorities recovered more than 120 antiquities from Palmyra between March 2014 and March 2015 – so, realistically, many more were lost.

Notably in May 2013, Lebanese security forces raided a storehouse and arrested Syrian and Lebanese smugglers in Ablah (Zahle), who had trafficked Byzantine, Roman and Aramaic antiquities from the archaeological site of Palmyra and churches in Homs, which was also under regime control; and they ran a sting operation against an illicit dealership in Beirut as well. Lebanese authorities seize antiquities from Syria ‘about twice a month‘ and have seized a lot of material from Palmyra. Again, with the best will in the world, Lebanon is not successfully intercepting the majority of antiquities that are smuggled out of Syria, so thousands more antiquities from Syria must have reached the international market.

While some of the looters are ‘criminal gangs’ or simply ‘desperate unemployed and hungry men’, some of them are ‘soldiers in the Syrian army’ (and the organised criminals cannot operate commercial-scale operations without the complicity of regime forces).

Embezzlement or evacuation? Bad news or bad source?

Hannah Lucinda Smith reported that, hours before the Islamic State had conquered Palmyra, ‘shabiha…. pro-government militias‘ had ‘looted Palmyra… in a pattern of “empty-and-retreat”‘ that they had employed ‘in areas that are falling into rebel hands across the north’. Residents of Palmyra (Tadmor) said that shabiha had ‘remov[ed] antiques from the Palmyra museum and load[ed] them into cars…. Some of the artefacts were transferred to Homs, but two carloads have since disappeared.’

Smith added:

Scores of antiquities were removed from museums in Idlib and Jisr ash-Shugur, in Idlib province, days before they fell to rebel forces led by the Nusra Front earlier this year. It is not known where they have been stored or even if they are still in the country. In Aleppo, residents are reporting that government employees have emptied the museums and the central bank.

A very sharp distinction should be drawn between regime militias and public servants. While profiteering corruption – and paramilitary compulsion – of some cultural heritage workers will account for some losses, at least five museum workers in Syria have died in the line of duty. Government employees themselves expressed fear because they had not emptied the museum in Idlib before its conquest by jihadist Jabhat al-Nusra (al-Nusra Front).

The Director-General of Antiquities and Museums, Mamoun Abdulkarim, said both that 15,000 endangered antiquities had been ‘locked away in safes’ in the museum and elsewhere ‘around the… city’ and that they had been ‘stored in a safe area‘, which suggests there is the same confusion or obfuscation in Idlib as in Palmyra, but which also suggests that (again) the vast majority of the material was not evacuated.

However, none of that suggests criminal activity by museum workers. Some vulnerable parts of Palmyra were buried by the DGAM for protection, then dug out by others. The Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums has not revealed where the antiquities have been stored because it is trying to hide them.

The same day, Smith had published allegations of ethnic cleansing by the Kurdish People’s Defence Units (YPG), which have been undermined and refuted and which local media have apologised for and retracted. With regard to the museum, eyewitness residents who spoke to other media explicitly stated that ‘museum workers‘ had packed up and dispatched the four truckloads of artefacts. The trucks may have been misdirected or misappropriated, but there is no significant evidence. is it not more likely that the same community of sources misrepresented events to the same journalist for the same reason?

Flogging propaganda

First of all, as Paul Barford has shown, the reports are characterised by discrepancies and confusion. Nonetheless, the Islamic State has released propaganda about Expropriation of a Group of Statues and Destruction of Contraband, which I was kindly shown by Gilles N. (@VegetaMoustache) and @TDecker75.

Paul rightly wonders why media are reporting that ‘the lion was destroyed just a few days ago, while there were clear reports that the destruction had happened at the end of May, just a week after the taking of the town’. Antiquities director Mamoun Abdulkarim had denied that the Lion of al-Lat had been destroyed by the 28th of May, but then he announced that the lion had been destroyed after all by the 23rd of June, and now he has re-announced the destruction and dated it to the 27th of June. ‘IS members on Saturday destroyed the Lion of al-Lat, which is a unique piece that is three metres [10ft] tall and weighs 15 tonnes.’

Paul also notes that two faces have been ‘blurred out’. ‘Who did this and why when others have their face shown in plain view? Could it be that ISIL do not want outsiders who’ve met these guys in another context [to recognise them]? For example, antiquities dealers?’ Having access to the original propaganda, it is evident that the Islamic State itself disguised those two men and another (150702 h; 150702 i; 150702 o). I agree with Paul as to why.

As the (obviously Arabic-speaking) Lebanese office of the Agence France-Presse (AFP) translated and the Lebanese Daily Star published: ‘An IS checkpoint in Wilyat (region of) Aleppo arrested a person transporting several statues from Palmyra…. The guilty party was taken to an Islamic court in the town of Minbej, where it was decided that the trafficker would be punished and the statues destroyed.’ The AFP/Daily Star also specified that Islamic State ‘members’ destroyed the statues.

The International Business Times expanded: ‘With thanks to Allah, Isis groups spread throughout the province have managed to stop a man who had in his possession a group of smuggled statues from Tadmur [Palmyra in Arabic] in the Homs province…. He was then taken to the Islamic court in the town of Manbaj where it was ruled that the smuggler was disciplined to the legal limits according to Islamic law, and the statues were destroyed, with thanks to God before and after.’

Peculiarly, the British Daily Mail said that the Islamic State’s propaganda justified the punishment of ‘activists [who] had been trying to smuggle out the statues, fearing their destruction at the hands of ISIS’, by forcing them to destroy the statues then flogging (whipping) them. My machine translation offers no such phrase and no other reports nor antiquities director Mamoun Abdulkarim noted any reference to “activists” or their forced participation in the destruction.

Paul also queries whether the evidence suggests an activist or a smuggler, because ‘the route the “activist” chose to take the busts to “safety” was northeast, [through Islamic State territory and] up towards the Turkish border, rather than the southwest to the government held regions where, presumably the others evacuated objects from Palmyra are.’

Then again, perhaps the Mail is not worth the time. No-one else reported that the violence was performed ‘in front of a baying crowd‘ either, and the images make clear why: the crowd was not baying. A few members and/or sympathisers grinned. But more observers grimaced. They appeared to watch in silence, some with their mouths hanging half-open, some with their eyes downcast, some with their eyes closed.

Originally, antiquities director Mamoun Abdulkarim told the International Business Times’ Gianluca Mezzofiore that ‘the statues [were] Palmyran art’, though he was ‘unsure whether they [were] original or replicas’.

We know they will destroy all the statues in their hands, it’s part of their ideology…. There are hundreds of similar statutes in Damascus, after they have been evacuated from Palmyra’s national museum. To prove the authenticity we would need to examine them in person. I’m sure that if Palmyra stays under Isis we’ll see a lot more of those pictures.

Abdulkarim has since stated that according to experts in the Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums in regime territory, ‘the stolen artifacts were looted from the Palmerean cemeteries‘, ‘eight statues stolen from the tombs in Palmyra’.

As Paul hinted, one of the sculptures (150702 f) may be a forgery (as indeed the others may be), which again suggests smuggling rather than rescue. More intriguing for me, though, was the fact that it (only) had dirt on the edge of the woman’s headdress, which resembled dust on a spider’s web, and behind her right ear.

Otherwise, all of the sculptures were scrupulously clean and laid out on the floor of a blue-painted room, in the same way as the recovered antiquities in the video that was broadcast by Channel 4 News and NTD TV. Would looters have cleaned this material so painstakingly before transport from the source, especially when the remnants of ancient soil are evidence of authenticity and appealing to illicit buyers? Could looters have stolen this material from the museum or one of the antiquities service’s safe houses, when the Islamic State certainly has control of the museum and probably has control of the safe houses?

None of the objects in the Islamic State’s propaganda exactly match any of the objects in the antiquities service’s reports of recoveries or preparations for evacuation(?). And the room in the propaganda is slightly different from the room in the reports. (The walls are lighter, the blue paint covers the skirting board and the floor tiles are lighter.) So they are not the same objects or in the same room.

But most of the recovered antiquities have not been publicised in photos. Could the Islamic State have uncovered the unevacuated objects and destroyed a few (and scapegoated someone) for show, but preserved a lot for sale?

Update (31st July 2015): Buzzfeed accidentally found one of the looter-smugglers

Buzzfeed’s Mike Giglio spent a month in Turkey’s borderlands, investigating the trafficking of Syria’s antiquities. Over the following weeks, in continued contact with his sources, with the assistance of a range of international experts, he analysed and checked his evidence.

When he showed me the photographs from the looter-smugglers, I thought I recognised some of the objects from the Islamic State propaganda that I had highlighted in this post. We ran through (and exhausted) a range of alternative explanations but, since I couldn’t believe my eyes, I told him not to trust them either. Mark Altaweel, Michael Danti and Amr al-Azm confirmed it.

And the looter-smuggler’s story confirmed the Islamic State’s version of events – though the Islamic State left out the rather unimpressive reason that they caught the smugglers and Abu Sayyaf’s antiquities stash proves that Islamic State antiquities policing is about power and propaganda rather than purity.

The smuggler had been smoking a cigarette when he pulled into an ISIS checkpoint outside Aleppo, en route to Lebanon. This caused the militants to become suspicious, since they consider smoking a sin, and they decided to search the car, finding the busts inside.

A comparison of an object found by a looter in Palmyra (via Giglio and al-Awad, Buzzfeed, 30th July 2015) and an object in Islamic State propaganda

A comparison of an object found by a looter in Palmyra (via Giglio and al-Awad, Buzzfeed, 30th July 2015) and an object in Islamic State propaganda

A comparison of an object found by a looter in Palmyra (via Giglio and al-Awad, Buzzfeed, 30th July 2015) and an object in Islamic State propaganda

A comparison of an object found by a looter in Palmyra (via Giglio and al-Awad, Buzzfeed, 30th July 2015) and an object in Islamic State propaganda

Islamic State propaganda video frames

Islamic State destruction of statues from Palmyra, Syria, 2nd July 2015 (150702 a)

Islamic State destruction of statues from Palmyra, Syria, 2nd July 2015 (150702 a)

Islamic State destruction of statues from Palmyra, Syria, 2nd July 2015 (150702 b)

Islamic State destruction of statues from Palmyra, Syria, 2nd July 2015 (150702 b)

Islamic State destruction of statues from Palmyra, Syria, 2nd July 2015 (150702 c)

Islamic State destruction of statues from Palmyra, Syria, 2nd July 2015 (150702 c)

Islamic State destruction of statues from Palmyra, Syria, 2nd July 2015 (150702 d)

Islamic State destruction of statues from Palmyra, Syria, 2nd July 2015 (150702 d)

Islamic State destruction of statues from Palmyra, Syria, 2nd July 2015 (150702 e)

Islamic State destruction of statues from Palmyra, Syria, 2nd July 2015 (150702 e)

Islamic State destruction of statues from Palmyra, Syria, 2nd July 2015 (150702 f)

Islamic State destruction of statues from Palmyra, Syria, 2nd July 2015 (150702 f)

Islamic State destruction of statues from Palmyra, Syria, 2nd July 2015 (150702 g)

Islamic State destruction of statues from Palmyra, Syria, 2nd July 2015 (150702 g)

Islamic State destruction of statues from Palmyra, Syria, 2nd July 2015 (150702 h)

Islamic State destruction of statues from Palmyra, Syria, 2nd July 2015 (150702 h)

Islamic State destruction of statues from Palmyra, Syria, 2nd July 2015 (150702 i)

Islamic State destruction of statues from Palmyra, Syria, 2nd July 2015 (150702 i)

Islamic State destruction of statues from Palmyra, Syria, 2nd July 2015 (150702 j)

Islamic State destruction of statues from Palmyra, Syria, 2nd July 2015 (150702 j)

Islamic State destruction of statues from Palmyra, Syria, 2nd July 2015 (150702 k)

Islamic State destruction of statues from Palmyra, Syria, 2nd July 2015 (150702 k)

Islamic State destruction of statues from Palmyra, Syria, 2nd July 2015 (150702 l)

Islamic State destruction of statues from Palmyra, Syria, 2nd July 2015 (150702 l)

Islamic State destruction of statues from Palmyra, Syria, 2nd July 2015 (150702 m)

Islamic State destruction of statues from Palmyra, Syria, 2nd July 2015 (150702 m)

Islamic State destruction of statues from Palmyra, Syria, 2nd July 2015 (150702 n)

Islamic State destruction of statues from Palmyra, Syria, 2nd July 2015 (150702 n)

Islamic State destruction of statues from Palmyra, Syria, 2nd July 2015 (150702 o)

Islamic State destruction of statues from Palmyra, Syria, 2nd July 2015 (150702 o)

Islamic State destruction of statues from Palmyra, Syria, 2nd July 2015 (150702 p)

Islamic State destruction of statues from Palmyra, Syria, 2nd July 2015 (150702 p)

Islamic State destruction of statues from Palmyra, Syria, 2nd July 2015 (150702 q)

Islamic State destruction of statues from Palmyra, Syria, 2nd July 2015 (150702 q)

Islamic State destruction of statues from Palmyra, Syria, 2nd July 2015 (150702 r)

Islamic State destruction of statues from Palmyra, Syria, 2nd July 2015 (150702 r)

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10 Responses to “Palmyra: looting under the rebels, the Assad regime and the Islamic State?”

  1. What is excatly your aim in publishing such a paper ? It is a bit unclear for me. The problem is not to know when or how the artefacts have been saved by the Syrian Service of Antiquities, but that in fact they are now preserved from any destruction.

    Those sources and experts advices, from ASOR with Amr al Azm or people from Heritage for Peace are not scientific and not neutral too. Those Syrian living in foreign countries and earning a lot of money to write reports that are very useless and without any historical background. It is easy for them to speak when they are out of Syria. That is a good heritage buisiness for those so called “monuments mens”, I’m really disgusted by such practices. It will be more efficient to help directly the people working in Syria to protect their heritage.

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