Damage to Archaeological Sites and pursuit of profit

When Al Quada (Al Qaida) and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS-ISIL) tried to create their own huge state, they wanted to get rid of everything what had to do with pagan worship. They did not want any trace of ancient culture to tarnish their habitat. Therefore they did not mind destroying anything what even had a smell of paganism. This destruction of archaeological sites brought many to the idea to gain money from what they could so called “save” for the future.

The fundamentalist Muslim fighters where not the only treat to the security of the state, the region, cultural artefacts and monuments. Next to the ones who had the intention to establish a caliphate and bring several countries onto their knees for becoming a devout Muslim according to their teachings, an other danger loomed from those who saw a great opportunity to gain a lot of money on the black market.

After the American government stopped funding Al Quada that broad-based militant Islamist organization founded by Osama bin Laden in the late 1980s, had to look for other sources to pay their weapons and their war on paganism. First they found a handy tool in the internet social media where the world was on their fingertips. The new media became used as an ideal tool to strengthen their forces. More and more they came convinced it was an ideal tool for popularizing their cause. They could use the social media to get their propaganda all over the world and to recruit and spread fear among civilians.

Osama bin Laden portrait.jpg

bin Laden c. 1997–98

Osama Bin Laden who felt betrayed by the Americans issued a fatwa against them and used sophisticated videos to make their message clear to the officials sitting in the White House as well as Pentagon. He very well knew how the West was a capitalist state, often more concerned about material value than about human beings. Therefore it can well be that he stimulated others at first starting bringing archaeological artefacts on the antique markets. Some years later the Taliban also found in such a business some good funding for their war.

Soon several ways were found to mislead the antiquities market or to find dealers that did not adhere to the Antiquities Law of their countries. Also rich people could be found who were very eager to buy ancient material from the Middle East.

In the Middle East, archaeological looting and the deliberate destruction of archaeological sites and monuments amid ongoing warfare have captured international attention. Antiquities looted from sites in Syria and northern Iraq and subsequently trafficked are one of the main sources of funding for the Islamic State, the Sunni extremist group referred to as ISIS (Daesh) or ISIL. Not much was done against those practices. There was also little talk about what could effectively be done about it. Telling people not to buy what may be looted antiquities makes the authorities feel good but has virtually no effect on looting.

Already in the September 2014 issue of the distinguished British journal known as PEQ (the Palestine Exploration Quarterly, founded in 1865), editor David Jacobson lamented the almost “total destruction” of an excavated site (in the West Bank in the area controlled by Israel) and another site “in jeopardy” of destruction (in the area controlled by the Palestinian Authority). Both sites have been

“ransacked by treasure seekers on an almost daily basis.”

Jacobson complained that the site had been left “unfenced and unprotected” — as if this would have helped.

“The authorities are clearly not living up to their responsibilities,”

charges Jacobson.

In the West lots of people do not see how those terrorist so called fighting for Allah are not really Muslims and doing lots of things against the Will of Allah. They forget that a Muslim may not burn the Quran or prayer houses (hough we can see that they bombed many mosques). In July 2014, ISIS militants blew up the mosque that housed the traditional tomb of the prophet Jonah in Mosul, Iraq. In that year alone, in war-torn Syria, five of six World Heritage sites came to “exhibit significant damage” and some structures became just “reduced to rubble.” The world could see on high-resolution satellite images many ancient sites practically totally destroyed.

Visiting dignitaries inside the ruined Great Mosque of Al-Nuri, December 17, 2018 (screenshot from AFP video)

Muslims may also not rape or sell children, what those Muslim terrorists did on the Asian as well as African continent. They also showed video’s of killings in front of monuments, whereby we also could see how those monuments got damaged as well.

Of Aleppo, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, dating to the 2nd millennium B.C.E., there is not much left over. Already in 2014 we could see how massive destruction was obvious throughout the city, and especially at the World Heritage site of the Ancient City. Today the warzone looks a desert of rubbish, with destroyed structures including historic mosques and madrasas (Koranic schools), the Great Mosque of Aleppo, the Suq al-Madina, the Grand Serail of Aleppo, the Hammam Yalbougha an-Nasry, the Khusruwiye Mosque, the Carlton Citadel Hotel, and the Khan Qurt Bey caravanserai, as well as other historic buildings south and north of the citadel.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) analyzed satellite images to document the destruction of Syria’s World Heritage sites as a result of ongoing warfare. The images here show the old city of Aleppo on December 6, 2011 (top), and on July 14, 2014 (bottom). One can observe that the roof of the Suq al-Madina has been damaged (green arrow), the minaret of the Great Mosque has been destroyed (red arrow), two craters have developed on the eastern wall of the mosque (blue arrows) and several structures in the vicinity have suffered heavy damage (yellow arrows). Images: ©2014, DigitalGlobe Analysis, AAAS.

Between 6 December 2011 (top) and 14 July 2014 (middle), the Ministry of Justice building was heavily damaged (red arrow), as was the Khusriwiye Mosque (green arrow). The Carlton Citadel Hotel (blue arrow) was completely destroyed. By 10 August 2014, the Khusriwiye Mosque had been almost completely demolished (green arrow),the Grand Serail was heavily damaged (orange arrow) and the dome of the Hammam Yalbougha an‐Nasry was destroyed (purple arrow). (View Larger Image) | Credit: Images©2014, DigitalGlobe,NextView License|Analysis AAAS.Coordinates36.19N, 37.16E.

Across Syria’s other World Heritage sites — the Ancient City of Bosra; the Ancient Site of Palmyra; the Ancient Villages of Northern Syria; and two castles, Crac des Chevaliers and Qal’at Salah El-Din — damage ranged from mortar impacts near an ancient Roman theater in Bosra, to apparent military compounds in previously pristine archaeological sites, and new roads and earthen berms cut through the centre of the Northern Roman Necropolis in Palmyra. UNESCO has said that Palmyra, located in the desert northeast of Damascus,

“contains the monumental ruins of a great city that was one of the most important cultural centers of the ancient world,”

marrying Graeco-Roman art with Persian influences.

Looting is something from all times, but with the many wars going on in the Middle East it increased. The removal of objects from graves and structures within several generations of interment, specifically in Ancient Egypt is well known. In the Valley of the Kings, the majority of tombs used for Court Officials have, when recently excavated, been found to contain broken vessels and desecrated bodies. While of course this desecration may have been carried out by professional thieves, it should be considered that the local population was expressing their rage against the people who controlled their lives.
Now other incentives may also have been the result of the seed trying to save beautiful things from the past. Several people feeling we should protect the past, took it in their own hands to bring many historical objects in safety. But others with not such good intentions and with a greater eye for profiteering saw their opportunity to peddle archaeological and historically valuable objects. Hawking historical object has become a very blooming business.


Temple of Bel at Dura-Europos

Continuous conflict has left thousands of archaeological sites in Syria and Iraq — including those of the Bronze, Iron, Greek, Roman, Byzantine and Islamic periods — vulnerable. In the Syrian Desert near Dayr al-Zawr, originally a Babylonian town, but  rebuilt as a military colony about 300 bce by the Seleucids and given the alternative name of Europus after the native city in Macedonia of its reputed founder, Seleucus I Nicator, Dura-Europus, also spelled Doura-Europus, had become a prosperous caravan city. After a siege in 256–57 it was captured by Sassanians and the population was deported. After it was abandoned, it was covered by sand and mud and disappeared from sight. Though it was looted and mostly destroyed between 2011 and 2014 first by the Free Syrian Army and Al-Nusra Front, and then by the Islamic State during the Syrian Civil War. It was a culturally diverse ancient city of where one of the earliest Christian house-churches was discovered. This has been heavily pillaged over the past few years.

Cultural heritage experts believe that ISIS militants have been responsible for much of the archaeological looting going on in Syria and northern Iraq since the rise of the rebel group. Criminal networks seeking to profit from the turmoil, however, are also to blame. The Art Newspaper reports that there has been a 133% rise in Syrian objects imported into the United States.

Placing guards or people to protect the sites did not seem a good solution, because demanding human victims, them being killed. A ranger who guarded several sites in the eastern Syrian city of Deir al-Zour was beheaded.

There are myriad efforts by professionals, government organizations and concerned citizens to address the loss of cultural heritage in conflict areas. The Safeguarding the Heritage of Syria Initiative is building a database to document the destruction of Syrian sites and artefacts — thus preserving at least the memory of cultural treasures. The Combatant Command Cultural Heritage Action Group trains U.S. military personnel to protect cultural property during operations. The International Council of Museums published the Emergency Red List of Syrian Cultural Objects at Risk to make art and heritage professionals and law enforcement officials aware of looted Syrian antiquities that may resurface in the art market.

BAR editor Hershel Shanks examines local and international efforts to address the archaeological looting and devastation of sites in the Middle East. Shanks remarks,

“While we should applaud those who are devoting themselves to protecting cultural property, there seems to be no effective means to prevent the destruction amid the turmoil gripping the Middle East. Much of the professional effort is devoted to documenting the destruction, rather than preventing it.”

In the face of this bleak — but frank — sentiment, it is nevertheless commendable that greater awareness is being raised for the value of our shared cultural heritage. Greater awareness can inspire more vigilance and better ideas for the protection of cultural property.

Speaking at the “Heritage in Peril: Iraq and Syria” event at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York on September 22, 2014, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said,

“The fight to protect the cultural heritage of Iraq and Syria isn’t just about shared values. It’s about protecting a shared legacy […] ISIS forces the people of Iraq and Syria to pay for their cultural heritage in blood. We are determined instead to help Iraqis and Syrians protect and preserve their heritage in peace. That’s our common responsibility.”


If you want to learn more about the archaeological looting of sites in the Middle East you may find reading the BAR article “Is It Possible to Protect Our Cultural Heritage?” by Hershel Shanks in the March/April 2015 issue of BAR of interest.

Find also Related reading in Bible History Daily:

  1. Biblical History at What Cost?
    Hobby Lobby, the Museum of the Bible and the antiquities market
  2. The Antiquities Market—A “Cat and Mouse Game”
  3. ISIS Destroys Antiquities in Mosul, Iraq
  4. ISIS Captures Syrian City of Palmyra
  5. ISIS Plants Explosives in Ancient City of Palmyra
  6. Temple of Baal Shamin in Palmyra Blown Up by ISIS
  7. Digital Humanities and the Ancient World
  8. Ancient Coins and Looting
  9. Sold to the Highest Bidder: Antiquities as Cash Cows
  10. Endangered Heritage: Archaeological Looting in Turkey




The clean sweeper of the whole caboodle

Old texts saved behind a wall at the Mar Behnam monastery


Additional reading

  1. 2015 the year of ISIS
  2. Al Qaeda regaining foothold in Middle East bubonic plague for American elections
  3. Reluctance to act in Syrian civil war
  4. ISIL will find no safe haven
  5. Cities not under fear but monuments feared
  6. Silence, devotion, Salafists, quietists, weaponry, bombings, books, writers and terrorists
  7. Declaring a Jihad Against ISIS
  8. Where is the government strategy to prevent violence against women?


Further reading

  1. Historical Photos from Iraq
  2. “It is a pity for the US citizens that they do not learn from their past. Kabul and Baghdad have been captured on the basis of advanced technology but people in both the cities have practically started war against them. Now the aggressor forces and their puppet rulers in Kabul cannot sleep tight. I am sure that with the fall of Baghdad, Muslims all over the world have become united and it is clear that they shall reply the America in the same currency.”-Gulbuddin Hekmatyar
  3. Deadly drone strike targets Taliban’s Red Unit
  4. ISIS regaining momentum near Palmyra as fighting rages in northwestern Syria
  5. ISIS may be defeated on battlefield but ideology ‘alive and well’: Canadian commander
  6. Daesh is Getting Ready to Infiltrate into Central Asia from Afghanistan
  7. Residents of Tadmor (Palmyra) Start Returning to their Homes
  8. Collection of bodies in Mosul: An act of revenge, humanity – or both?
  9. People & Power: Media Strengthening Wrath of Al-Qaeda, IS and Alike
  10. Afghan Taliban leader pledges to keep fighting until goals met
  11. Iran urges Europe to normalise economic ties with it or face consequences
  12. Anubis in the Greek and Roman world
  13. Israel Criminally Bombs Tal al Harah Syria; Many Missiles Intercepted
  14. Afghanistan…The Way It Is
  15. How Tamil Nadu contributed in the growth of the ISIS and violent radical Islam
  16. Behind the Syrian Network for Human Rights: How an opposition front group became Western media’s go-to monitor
  17. #ISIS aligned Bank Al-Ansar Claims Distributing Over 7,000 Accounts for Online Services https://t.co/wsw3eOXPOJ https://t.co/TaJTvIGGed
  18. Will the Astana Group fail Syria’s people?
  19. #ICYMI #Iraq lays cornerstone to rebuild iconic #Mosul mosque https://t.co/TLiknZ5mBk
  20. UNESCO: Revive the Spirit of Mosul
  21. Reviving Mar Behnam Monastery near Mosul
  22. Western Mosul, March 2019
  23. Syria – mouthwatering cuisine, crusader castles, water wheels and roman ruins; a pre-war tribute
  24. Aleppo: Our Lady of the Assumption Cathedral reconsecrated
  25. Escalation in bombardments in Syria’s Idlib province raises concern of another humanitarian catastrophe and a new Aleppo
  26. Behind The Headlines, The Aftermath of War
  27. Behind The Headlines, The Aftermath of War
  28. A Library Rises from the Ashes of War
  29. World Heritage in Danger… What Danger?

One thought on “Damage to Archaeological Sites and pursuit of profit

  1. Pingback: The Casualties of War: The Truth about the Iraq Museum | Bijbelvorser = Bible Researcher

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