Last month, Mehmet Nuri Ekinci reported that Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) had seized equipment from Turkish Islamic State fighters in Syria; @hasavrat noticed that they had confiscated a book that documented ancient coins; and I asked if anyone recognised it. Ute Wartenberg Kagan did – and it makes grim reading.
Islamic State acquired a book on antiquities in Syria
When I first appealed for information, assistance and answers came from archaeologists, historians, antiquities dealers, antiquities collectors and other concerned citizens around the world. The collaborative effort (which I summarised for a public archaeology project) quickly established that the coins in question were Persian, Athenian, and pre-Hellenistic and Hellenistic Phoenician coins.
Numismatist Ute Wartenberg Kagan, who specialises in the economy of ancient Greece and the Achaemenid Empire, recognised the page, worked out the title and found the book, which she proved by posting photos of her find. She also found the map – a map of the ‘archaeological sites of Hawran, an area in southwestern Syria’.
Fortunately, Bibliothèque St Étienne de Jérusalem (of the École Biblique et Archéologique Française) has listed the contents of the Archaeology and History of Syria, II: Syria from the Achaemenid Era to the Advent of Islam [l’Archeologie et Histoire de la Syrie, II: la Syrie de l’Époque Achéménide à l’Avènement de l’Islam]. And even the contents make interesting reading, covering Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine coins; mosaics, paintings and sculptures; sites of tombs, sanctuaries, temples, churches and towns, including Palmyra; and much more besides.
- La Syrie sous la domination achéménide [Syria under Achaemenid domination] (Maurice Sartre)
- ‘Amrit (Nassib Saliby)
- La Syrie à l’époque hellénistique [Syria in the Hellenistic era] (Maurice Sartre)
- La Syrie, de Pompée à Dioclétien: histoire politique et administrative [Syria, from Pompey to Diocletian: administrative and political history] (Jean-Paul Rey-Coquais)
- Social and Economic History of Syria under the Roman Empire (Glen Warren Bowersock)
- Sur quelques aspects de la vie religieuse dans la Syrie à l’époque hellénistique et romaine [On some aspects of religious life in Syria in the Hellenistic and Roman periods] (Javier Teixidor)
- La Syrie à l’époque byzantine: Essai de synthèse [Syria in the Byzantine era: an attempt at synthesis] (Georges Tate)
- Le christianisme en Syrie des origines à l’avènement de l’islam [Christianity in Syria from its origins to the advent of Islam] (Pierre Canivet)
- La monnaie en Syrie à l’époque hellénistique et romaine (fin du IVe s. av. J.-C. – fin du Ve s. ap. J.-C.) [Money in Syria in the Hellenistic and Roman periods (end of 4th Century B.C. – end of 5th Century A.D.] (Christian Augé)
- La monnaie en Syrie byzantine [Money in Byzantine Syria] (Cécile Morrisson)
- Les routes romaines de Syrie [The Roman roads of Syria] (Thomas Bauzou)
- Les villes de la Syrie à l’époque hellénistique et romaine [The towns of Syria in the Hellenistic and Roman periods] (Ernest Will)
- Palmyre et les Palmyréniens [Palmyra and the Palmyrans] (Adnan Bounni)
- Les fortifications grecques et romaines en Syrie [Greek and Roman fortifications in Syria] (Pierre Leriche)
- Villes et fortifications de l’Euphrate à l’époque paléo-chrétienne (IVe-VIIe s.) [Towns and fortifications of the Euphrates in the early Christian era (4th-7th Centuries)] (Thilo Ulbert)
- Le sanctuaire syrien [The Syrian sanctuary] (Jean-Marie Dentzer)
- Les temples dans la Syrie à l’époque hellénistique et romaine [Temples in Syria in the Hellenistic and Roman periods] (Michal Gawlikowski)
- Les églises de Syrie du Nord [The churches of northern Syria] (Jean-Pierre Sodini)
- Les monuments chrétiens de la Syrie du Sud [Christian monuments in southern Syria] (Marcell Restle)
- Les édifices des spectacles en Syrie [Edifices/buildings for spectacles in Syria] (Edmond Frézouls)
- La maison urbaine en Syrie [The urban house in Syria] (Jean-Charles Balty)
- Architecture funéraire de la Syrie [The funerary architecture of Syria] (Annie Sartre-Fauriat)
- L’architecture funéraire de Palmyre [The funerary architecture of Palmyra] (Andreas Schmidt-Colinet)
- Le décor architectural en Syrie aux époques hellénistique et romaine [Architectural decoration in Syria in the Hellenistic and Roman periods] (Jacqueline Dentzer-Feydey)
- Le décor architectural en Syrie byzantine [Architectural decoration in Byzantine Syria] (Alice Naccache)
- La mosaïque en Syrie [The mosaic in Syria] (Janine Balty)
- La peinture en Syrie [The painting in Syria] (Janine Balty)
- La sculpture grecque et la sculpture d’époque romaine impériale en Syrie [Greek sculpture and imperial Roman era sculpture in Syria] (Klaus Parlasca)
- Les bijoux antiques du Musée National de Damas [The antique jewellery of the National Museum of Damascus] (Bachir Zouhdi)
- La Syrie a l’époque hellénistique et romaine: mille ans de vie intellectuelle et artistique [Syria in the Hellenistic and Roman periods: a thousand years of intellectual and artistic life] (Ernest Will)
Obviously, this complements the latest revelations of Islamic State natural resource manager Abu Sayyaf’s stash of illicit antiquities, most of which were (early Islamic) coins.
Islamic State deliberately acquired a book on antiquities in Syria
Erring on the side of caution, with evidence only of a French-language chapter on Phoenicia and two German-language books on Egypt, I had worked on the assumption that the texts ‘had been stolen by fighters who could not read them, who were keeping them for someone else to check‘, which nonetheless demonstrated organisational interest in archaeological information. Yet it is clear, now, that the books had been identified and were being transported by fighters because they had been identified.
Furthermore, the Assistant Curator of American Coins and Currency for the American Numismatic Society (ANS), Matthew Wittmann, was kind enough to point out an update to Wartenberg Kagan’s post. One of the book’s editors, Winfried Orthmann, saw her post and told her that Ar-Raqqah Museum had at least one copy of the book, which Orthmann had given to its director, and may have had a second. Since Raqqah is the headquarters of the Islamic State’s operations, and the museum has been occupied and looted by the Islamic State, the book may have been – and probably was – looted from the museum.
Islamic State used fighters to transport a book on antiquities in Syria
Whether or not the book was brought from even further afield or from Raqqah, it is ‘very scholarly’, ‘relatively rare‘ and was not picked up more locally. Antiquities traffickers’ deliberate acquisition of this book corroborates Wartenberg Kagan’s belief in the ‘often erudite knowledge’ of ‘people who are involved in looting ancient sites in the Mediterranean’. And, reinforced by Abu Sayyaf’s stash, the transportation of this book by Islamic State fighters in conflict corroborates the significant value of conflict antiquities to the Islamic State.
Islamic State deliberately acquired and used fighters to transport two books on antiquities in Egypt as well
In the meantime, Ancient Heritage‘s David Knell and @ghumdan identified the second book as Miroslav Verner’s (1998) Die Pyramiden [the Pyramids] and Knell identified the third book as another book on the Pyramids in Egypt.
In light of the fact that the book on Syria’s antiquities was acquired and was being transported deliberately, the simultaneous transportation of two books on Egypt’s antiquities can only indicate the scale of the Islamic State’s financial as well as geopolitical ambition. But, as Operation Aureus/Operation Hieratica suggested, the transportation of these books may reflect the Islamic State’s existing fundraising through trafficking of antiquities from Egypt.1
1. Verner discusses not only the Pyramids, but also other monuments, structures and artefacts in ancient Egypt. He explains such details as that (Egyptian) “shesep-ankh” / (Greek) “sphinx” means “living image“. Apart from any information that would inform looting, such details could be exploited in propaganda to excuse the monument’s destruction.