There is a long history of smuggling in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley; but until recently it was mostly furniture, antique household items, intricately detailed pieces, and other goods found in old houses across the Syrian border that littered the shelves of antique shops. It was common and reliable source of income for antique dealers and high end tourist shops. Now items like a hand-crafted chest of drawers goes for only a few hundred dollars.
This price dip is due to the fact that the market is being flooded with even more priceless items: artifacts looted from ancient Syrian sites like the 1st century Roman settlement of Apameia, Palmyra, and Dura Europos. In the chaos of war looting and smuggling of these ancient sites at the birthplace of civilization goes unchecked.
And who exactly is benefiting from this carnage?
There are the traditional antiques dealers, like those in Bekaa Valley, who boast to tourists that they can get you anything. There are families desperate enough to sell their own heirlooms and antiques, anything to survive. And then there are the soldiers.
Almost as soon as the conflict in Syria began, both soldiers of the regime and opposition rebels began to turn a profit from smuggling. But it was the so-called-Islamic State that really revolutionized the business. In places like Dura Europos, a city dating from 300 BC, IS has taxed the sale of antiques by private dealers, employed their own laborers, and used it’s own machinery to turn a practice of backroom deals into a multi-million dollar industry. IS claims that their interpretation of Islamic law induces their destruction of idols from ancient cultures, but, although it is difficult to gauge the exact amount gained by smuggling, it is hard to ignore the fact that it is a highly profitable practice for IS. Whether it was done for profit or for ideological claims, 70% of Dura Europos was destroyed by 2015. Archaeologists had only begun to scratch the surface of this ancient and untouched city before fighting broke out and now whatever information the city held is gone forever.
This link shows the destruction to Dura Europos between 2011 and 2014: Dura Europos
The cultural and heritage community have taken this as really blow and there are several international movements aimed at collecting, preserving, and protecting remaining artifacts and sites. The British Museum, for example, claims to be “guarding” certain artifacts which it has promised to return when it deems the cultural climate safe and stable again. This is a laudable act but it has also lead some to be concerned about looting of a different kind. Will artifacts really be returned to their homelands when the war is over, or will foreign museums retain them for “safe keeping”?
Luckily, there are local movements on the ground to preserve the rich history of the area. In a wonderful move of retaliation against IS, Iraq’s National Museum reopened in 2015 after 12 years of closure. In fact, the reopening was moved up after museum officials saw an IS video of extremists smashing artifacts and ancient statues in Mosul.
When asked why sure efforts are being made to save relics and artifacts and cultural sites when so many people are dying, Nada Hassen from UNESCO pointed out that when the conflict ends, it will be the heritage, culture, and history national identity and unity are drawn from; they will be the things people turn to when rebuilding.