ISIS Erasing Our Cultural Heritage in Syria



It is widely recognized that the damage done to our cultural heritage in Syria, and to the heritage of those who will follow us, is incalculable.  Untold quantities of archaeologically vital artifacts have been looted, sold, displaced and discarded through ISIS’ industry-like efforts.

Citizens of Syria who are resisting the “IS Caliphate” and risking their own and their families’ lives to flee ISIS-controlled areas in Syria are increasingly willing to discuss their experiences and to offer instructive insights. Among these patriots are regular citizens as well as stellar nationalist employees of Syria’s Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM). This observer has interviewed them extensively over the past three years and they have elucidated why ISIS destroys and loots our irreplaceable antiquities. This observer’s research has been augmented by other eyewitnesses, some of them former jihadists or their victims, who recount ISIS’ looting and its distribution of franchises to sell off our shared cultural heritage.

Three varying but cogent explanations for ISIS’ rabid destruction of our shared cultural heritage are commonplace:

The first identifies the well-documented antipathy of the Islamic State towards the pre-Islamic past, ours and theirs.

The second is that the jihadists are known to have profited hugely from selling looted antiquities.

Thirdly, there has been some evidence (not compelling, in this observer’s judgment), that jihadists are destroying our cultural heritage in Syria as ‘publicity stunts’ to get attention on social media, with motivation for profit-making sales of Syrian artifacts via Facebook, WhatsApp, and Snapchat. Meanwhile, according to a US Congressional staffer this week, leftover artifacts are currently being sold by IS to locals at public auctions in Raqqa, Mari, Dura-Europos and Deir al Zor, among other places.

With respect to the first and second explanations, it is well documented that ISIS has ransacked thousands of artifacts from dozens of World Heritage and archaeological sites in Syria and that the profits from flogging our cultural heritage cheap helps IS meet its monthly budgets, more than 50% of which goes to pay salaries and relatively generous benefits to its fighters and their families.

Yet research by this observer on this subject concludes that ISIS’ looting income, contrary to many claims (including a recent one by  CBS News that reported that ISIS generated “hundreds of millions of dollars” from antiquities transactions, although this figure rivals the annual haul of antiquities sold legally throughout the entire world) has not been backed up by probative, material data.

One expert, Randall A. Hixenbaugh, Director of New York based Hixenbaugh Ancient Art, told a Manhattan conference recently,

“We’re looking at objects that are worth hundreds of dollars here. When we say that these antiquities are worth millions of dollars, where is the evidence of this? I think that prompts people to pick up shovels in eastern Syria. Are we not adding to the problem right now, by hyperbolic assessments of value?”

On May 15, 2015 a raid by American Special Forces on an ISIS safe house in a small village outside Deir ez-Zor killed ISIS leader Fathi Ben Awn Ben Jildi Murad al-Tunisi, better known by his nickname Abu Sayyaf, who was in charge of overseeing the excavation of antiquities. The raid also freed an 18-year old Yazidi slave woman and captured a trove of documents that revealed far lower amounts from marketing cultural heritage artifacts than earlier estimated. The raid also uncovered many USBs containing documents verifying that ISIS sees our cultural heritage artifacts as merely another natural resource to be extracted from the ground, rather than as “ghanim”, i.e., looted items or spoils of war.

Selling plundered antiquities is frankly not a very profitable funding strategy for IS when compared to oil, banks, taxes and stolen goods. Far from the initial claims that ISIS was making tens of millions or more from stolen antiquities, the true figures are likely much lower. Some antiquities can indeed be sold to the final buyer in Europe, the United States or Asia for large amounts. But most of the material coming out of the ground in ISIS-held areas on a daily basis, such as pottery, glassware, coins, and architectural fragments are worth, at most, several hundred dollars at the final point of sale.

The total annual income ISIS makes from looted antiquities, as calculated by this observer and others more knowledgeable, is only a few million dollars. Compare this to, say, their oil revenue, which for 2014 alone was estimated to be between $100 million and $263 million.

Admittedly, hard data is tough to come by and while Archaeologists can no longer visit most of Syria, they do monitor cultural depredation in Syria from the secure vantage point of outer space. Employing pretty amazing high-resolution satellite imagery, the Oxford University’s Institute of Digital Archaeology (IDA) informs us and gives us hope for the restoration of our cultural heritage in Syria via its One Million Images project.

This observer submits that there is a forth and still more sinister reason which has not been much considered in respect to the Islamic State brand. The destruction and looting of our heritage can be seen as the basis of an intricate scaffolding of intense micro-managed social control over a captive population, a system that is designed to intensely regulate individual behavior. This even applies to where and when to excavate and loot our antiquities. With maps and time/date-stamped permits in hand, ISIS picks out certain archaeological sites thought worthwhile enough to excavate and strip of anything that might be valuable. All in all, this is admittedly an ambitious and seductive vision that has proven to be somewhat of a major victory for ISIS’ social media.

Recently ISIS has introduced well-organized control over the looting of our cultural heritage, as evidenced by satellite photos revealing neat rows of looting holes on archaeological sites. As noted above, ISIS considers antiquities a natural resource to be seized like oil or gas, along with its large-scale operation of theft of personal and real property. Its Department of Precious Resources (Diwan al Rikaz), which controls mines and minerals, now oversees antiquities and issues excavation permits. Diwan al Rikaz demands on average 20% of the objects excavated. It also applies a sales tax and uses social media to augment its marketing and relies mainly on obedient citizens to do the excavation work while its fighters perform their jihadist duties elsewhere. However, unlike oil extraction, the looting of antiquities does not guarantee a major stream of income. In fact, locally the activity is a bit of a gamble. As in a Los Vegas casino, many can wager but with only a long shot holds the prospect of a high payoff. The vast majority of artifacts currently being unearthed at sites in Syria are of great archaeological importance but have little value on the worldwide art market.

By managing antiquities like other resources, ISIS inserts itself into countless holes in the ground. Thus, the real goal is not simply cash profit but rather total psychological control over the new range of behavior and thought of the subject populace it has created as part of its totalitarian vision. ISIS has transformed the pre-Islamic past of Syria into a forbidden zone, a mere natural resource to be exploited. But while the financial profits may be relatively small, more importantly it also offers ISIS yet another way to transform people from captives to dependents under the “Caliphate.”

Increasing its social control by regulating the theft and destruction of our past is part of more expansive organizing effort by the Islamic State. ISIS’ glossy propaganda magazine, now issued in 14 languages, ‘Dabiq’ (named after a key site in Muslim apocalypse mythology),  bills itself as a periodical magazine focusing on the issues of tawhid (unity), manhaj (truth- seeking), hijrah (migration), jihad (holy war) and jama’ah (community). It frequently features spreads on ISIS attacks on Syria’s pre-Islamic heritage sites.

Typical in its taunting of those who value culture heritage, a recent Dabiq commentary states:

“Enemies of the Islamic State were furious at losing a ‘treasured heritage.’ The mujahidīn, however, were not the least bit concerned about the feelings and sentiments of the kuffar. (ed: ‘non-believers’). The kuffar had unearthed these statues and ruins in recent generations and attempted to portray them as part of a cultural heritage and identity that the Muslims of Syria should embrace and be proud of. Yet this opposes the guidance of Allah and His Messenger and only serves a nationalist agenda.”

This sort of ISIS iconoclasm mirrors its other social control policies and attendant punishments. Dabiq recently featured this post-card size list of good citizen ‘reminders’ and recommended that IS citizens always carry it:

“Death for blasphemy against God, death for blasphemy against the Prophet Mohammad, death for apostasy against Islam, death to both the penetrator and receiver of gay sex, hand and leg amputations for theft, more than two dozen violations such as drinking wine earn 80 or more lashes, while “highway criminality” brings death by crucifixion.”

Another sign of intensifying social control by ISIS is found in recently-issued laws on Hijab wearing in Syria. According to conversations by this observer with recent women escapees from IS areas in Syria, all women past the age of puberty must comply with the following rules on Hijabs or face draconian punishments. Specifically, all women in Syria must wear a Hijab of thick material: “It must be loose (not tight). It must cover all the body. It must not be attractive. It must not resemble the clothes of unbelievers or men. It must not be decorative and eye-catching. It must not be perfumed.”

In the South Beirut Hezbollah neighborhood of Dahiyeh, where this observer currently resides, Shia women are known and appreciated for their attractive, often richly-colored head coverings and scarves/hijabs and for their special way of tying them to one side under the chin that is quite distinctive, attractive and often a conscious fashion statement.  This is forbidden for all Muslims in IS areas of Syria, Iraq, Libya and anywhere under ISIS control and carries a penalty of 80 lashes.

The Obama administration and its allies have become increasingly frustrated regarding the subject of the need to protect and preserve Syria’s Endangered Heritage. They remain less than confident that ISIS plundering of our heritage in Syria as part of intensifying social control under its “Caliphate” can be stopped anytime soon.

Yet at the urging of the White House, last week the Senate Foreign Relations Committee worked on  H.R. 1493, The Protect and Preserve International Cultural Property Act,  and favorably reported the measure for full consideration by the Senate. The original bill passed in the House of Representatives in June 2015 and called for the appointment of an Assistant Secretary of State as the new United States Coordinator for International Cultural Property Protection, commonly referred to in Washington as a “Cultural Czar”. The new language, designed to obtain early passage of the bill, recommends “that the President should establish an inter-agency coordinating committee to coordinate and advance the efforts of the executive branch to protect and preserve international cultural property at risk.”

The mandate of the inter-agency committee, to be chaired by an Assistant Secretary of State, includes working to protect and preserve international cultural property in Syria while working to prevent and disrupt cultural heritage looting and trafficking worldwide. The legislation’s mandate also encompasses the protection sites of cultural and archaeological significance while seeking to provide for the lawful exchange of international cultural property from Syria.

Franklin Lamb volunteers with the Lebanon, France, and USA based Meals for Syrian Refugee Children Lebanon (MSRCL) which seeks to provide hot nutritional meals to Syrian and other refugee children in Lebanon. He is reachable c/o