ISIS looting and destruction of heritage sites has roots in ideology and finance

This article originally appeared on The Media Line.

The systematic destruction of archaeological sites in Iraq and Syria by the Islamic State (ISIS) has appalled and infuriated but failed to motivate the international community to act to prevent the further eradication of the region’s heritage. With the demolition of parts of the ancient ruins of Palmyra in August, the group demonstrated once again its desire to eliminate any symbols which do not conform to its fundamentalist interpretation of Sunni Islam. But according to experts, there is far more than ideology behind the defacement of artifacts.

The Islamic State controls territory in western Iraq and eastern Syria equivalent in size to Belgium, it exports oil, creates its own professionally produced propaganda, and in all regards projects the image of a legitimate state. ISIS supplements the income it makes from black market oil sales with taxes levied on the six million people under its control, ransoms from hostages, and the sale of looted antiquities. From its roots as an Al-Qa’ida offshoot intended to be its Iraqi franchise, ISIS has evolved into the free world’s greatest nightmare, profiting from the Syrian civil war to become the world’s richest terrorist organization.

In the eighteen months since the group swept to power, it has destroyed ancient sites at Palmyra and Nimrud, including churches, mosques, shrines, and temples from the ancient world.

Such destruction is part of a three-fold strategy according to Dr. Joris D. Kila, a researcher with the University of Vienna and a specialist in heritage studies in the context of armed conflicts. He told The Media Line that destruction of images is designed to demonstrate the group’s piety to their own audience, an attack against idolatry emulating the foregone practices of the Middle Ages. “What is new is that they first take away the stuff that they can sell,” Kila explained. “This is becoming “more important because the oil refineries are being bombed by the (US led) coalition,” and the price of oil has dropped.

Psychological warfare is the third aspect to the strategy of destruction: the eradication of minority groups’ cultural identities. According to Kila, by targeting the region’s non-Sunni heritage, the group is demonstrating to people such as the Druze and the Yazidis that there is no place for them in the Islamic State. This is no different than the systematic erasing of minorities carried out by the Nazi regime, he concluded.

A black market in smuggled antiquities thrived long before ISIS muscled in on the practice, but since ISIS entered the game the measure of profits and destruction associated with the criminal enterprise has increased to “industrial scale looting.”

 “The problem is not the trade in illegal antiquities – the problem is laundering of looted items,” Dr. Eitan Klein, the deputy director of the Unit for the Prevention of Antiquities Robbery at the Israel Antiquities Authority, told The Media Line. According to Klein, by taking a looted object to a country with lax import-export regulations, a smuggler can acquire documentation that falsely demonstrates the object’s origins – essentially creating a false identity for the plundered artifact. This allows it to be sold to legitimate dealers and museums. “If it was laundered goods, it would be hard to tell where the antique came from,” Klein said.

In order to stem this trade – and therefore cut-off funding to groups like the Islamic State – governments and law enforcement agencies are obliged to cooperate and exchange information in real time. “It’s a game between dealers and countries,” Klein said, stressing that a unified front was required to fight the trade. “One country with loose regulation” is all that is needed to open the net, he warned.

But if the illicit profits from the trade are difficult to curb, technology has provided one solution to the Islamic State’s attempts to eradicate the region’s cultural heritage.  Donald H. Sanders is a self-described digital archaeologist who is working with a team at Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to preserve sites threatened by ISIS. “By coincidence – we happened to be working on a couple of the sites in Iraq that ISIS decided to blow up – so it turns out that we probably have the only surviving digital copies,” Sanders told The Media Line.

By digitally capturing three dimensional renditions of historical sites, archeologists hope to preserve antiquities for future generations. “War, climate change or even too many tourists” can damage archeological sites, but through the use of a variety of new technologies archeologists are recording sites for posterity, according to Sanders. Recent improvements in the capabilities of drones, photo modelling and laser scanning — technologies which did not exist five or ten years ago — have made this possible.

It is possible that in the near future all historical sites of significance will be recorded with their 3-D models held online for anybody to access. Although this would not prevent their destruction by groups with ISIS-like ideology it would preserve their memory. “That is coming and people are rushing to try make that a reality,” Sanders said, though the archaeologist pointed out that visiting a site in the flesh can never be truly replaced.

“What is really important, what should be a game changer, is the fact that groups like ISIS loot and sell cultural properties to finance their conflict,” Dr. Kila said. The Dutch academic, who served as army officer, argued that the military’s job is to end a conflict as quickly as possible. This includes the economic battle of cutting-off finances which enable an enemy to continue fighting, a practical concern that governments should listen to, he argued.

Ancient Jerusalem aqueduct discovered during sewer work

A section of Jerusalem’s lower aqueduct, which brought water to the city more than 2,000 years ago, was uncovered during sewer work.

The aqueduct, which was excavated by the Israel Antiquities Authority, was found in the Umm Tuba neighborhood, near Har Homa. It begins near Solomon’s Pools south of Bethlehem and continues for about 13 miles, running through several Jerusalem neighborhoods.

In a statement released Thursday, the antiquities authority said the aqueduct operated intermittently until 100 years ago.

The water originally traveled through an open channel. About 500 years ago, during the Ottoman period, terra cotta pipe was installed inside the channel to better protect the water, according to excavation director Yaakov Billig.

Billig said the Umm Tuba section of the aqueduct has been documented, studied and covered again to preserve it for future generations.

“Due to its historical and archaeological importance, the Israel Antiquities Authority is taking steps to prevent any damage to the aqueduct, and is working to expose sections of its remains, study them and make them accessible to the general public,” the authority’s statement said.

Calling all Jewish heirlooms

Appraiser David Streets has a passion for Jewish antiques — old Kiddush cups passed down for generations, Shabbat candlesticks with stories to share. It’s a history that he loves, even if it’s not his.

“I’m an Episcopalian,” he confessed, explaining, “Many of my clients were and are Jewish and have wonderful items that have been inherited, passed down, saved, of Judaica.”

Streets, 46, will bring his years of experience to American Jewish University in Bel Air on May 22 for a Jewish Antiques Appraisal Show from 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Admission is $10, but appraisals are free. TRIBE Media Corp., parent company of The Journal, is a co-sponsor of the event.

The son of collectors in Indiana, Streets started working in the industry during high school and broadened his range as an appraiser and art dealer as he worked in New Orleans and, now, in Beverly Hills. Over the years, this came to include Judaica as well as fine art and celebrity memorabilia.

“It’s one specialty that’s very, very rare,” he said. “Most of the people traditionally who value Judaica or even research it are rabbis.”

Streets said he has appraised everything from tefillin dating to the time of the Dead Sea Scrolls, to Sammy Davis Jr.’s gold Torah money clip that sold for $19,200.

“It’s been a lot of fun,” he continued. “I’m very passionate about it. I love the research element, and I love the history of these wonderful items.”

Unlike, say, real estate, there is no formal training for the profession. “It’s really based on experience,” Streets said.

Jonathan Greenstein, owner of J. Greenstein & Co. Inc., a New York auction house devoted solely to selling antique Jewish ritual objects, said evaluating Judaica is a tricky business.

It requires a knowledge of metal and how it’s created, the vast history of the Jewish people spanning countries and centuries, and idiosyncrasies, such as the different Hebrew writing styles from different areas.

Then there is the major issue of authenticity. “Judaica is second only to Faberge in the amount of fakes and forgeries, because [so much] was stolen and melted by Hitler and the Third Reich,” Greenstein said.

Because surviving artifacts are relatively rare, a silver cup from a certain period that has a Hebrew inscription may be worth many times more than a plain one. It provides a huge incentive to create fakes, he said.

A history buff at heart, Streets said he is most intrigued by the stories behind the items he appraises.

“Some of the most moving and wonderful stories are family Judaica that were saved and carried through the Holocaust,” he said. “As valuable as anything are the stories of where they came [from] and how they were passed down and where they were found.”

Of course, there is the issue of monetary value, too.

“I’ve found some really amazing early items that are museum pieces, a number of priceless pieces,” Streets said.

More information on the Jewish Antiques Appraisal Show at the Gindi Auditorium of American Jewish University, 15600 Mullholland Drive, Bel Air, can be found at

VIDEO: Archaeologists excavate 2100-year-old wall in Jerusalem

A 2,100-year-old section of the wall surrounding Jerusalem, dating from Hasmonean times, has been unearthed on Mount Zion, the Israel Antiquities Authority announced Wednesday. The excavations have revealed part of the expanded southern city wall, from the Second Temple period, when ancient Jerusalem was at its largest.


No one cares about ravaging of Temple Mount

No one really cares.

But that puts me in an elite group: It includes two of Israel’s most prominent Jerusalem archaeologists (Gaby Barkay and Eilat Mazar) — and me. And a few religious or Zionist kooks. That’s about it.

Meanwhile, the Muslim Waqf goes on tearing up Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, where once the Jewish Temple stood. The week before last, they hit an ancient wall that might be the foundation of a wall from the Second Temple complex built by Herod the Great.

It’s an old/new story. For the past 35 years, the Muslim religious authority known as the Waqf, to which Israel has given custody of the Temple Mount, has been periodically digging it up — illegally. (That’s the Israel Supreme Court’s characterization.) Several years ago, for example, the Waqf used mechanical equipment to dig a huge hole for a wide stairway down to a greatly expanded underground mosque, dumping hundreds of tons of dirt from the mount into the adjacent Kidron Valley.

When Zachi Zweig, a graduate student of Barkay’s, started looking for antiquities in the Waqf dump, the Israel Antiquities Authority had Zweig arrested for digging without a permit. Since then, Barkay has obtained the permit and, with Zweig, they have engaged in a multiyear project sifting this archaeologically rich dump. They have found thousands of ancient artifacts going back 3,000 years, including a seal impression of a probable brother of someone mentioned in the Bible.

Now the Waqf wants to lay new telephone and electric lines on the mount. Under Israeli law, in an area that might contain antiquities, the trench must be excavated by professional archaeologists. (The same holds true for construction: Such areas must first be professionally excavated, most often by the Israel Antiquities Authority.)

The Waqf simply ignores this law, however. A few weeks ago, they began digging a utilities trench almost 5-feet deep, often going down to bedrock. Worse still, the workmen were using mechanical equipment — an anathema to any professional archaeologist in such a site.

It’s certainly all right for the Waqf to lay new telephone and electrical lines. But there would seem to be no reason why the trench could not first be excavated by professional archaeologists who dig by hand and with great care to document the context of all discoveries — no reason except the Waqf’s unwillingness to recognize Israeli law.

On July 18, 2007, I published an op-ed piece in The Wall Street Journal titled, “Biblical Destruction,” protesting the Waqf excavation. It has had no effect. Since then, the excavation has been extensively expanded.

Observers have reported seeing numerous antiquities in the excavated dirt and in the trench, including mosaic tesserae, a quantity of pottery vessels (some of which had been freshly broken by the tractor scoop) and carefully carved and decorated building stones typical of the Second Temple period.

Last week, as I said earlier, the excavation hit part of an unusually wide wall that has now been destroyed. It could well have been part of the Temple complex.

Barkay and Mazar continue to protest vehemently and publicly. But they have mostly been met with silence.

The archaeological community as such has not raised its voice. Each archaeologist is concerned with his or her own dig, not someone else’s violation of the antiquities law. And why jeopardize a career by making trouble, when all the well-known political names and faces remain silent?

Yes, a few newspaper articles have appeared, but nothing serious. The Antiquities Authority has been queried on several occasions about this violation of Israel’s antiquities laws on Judaism’s holiest site, but the response has always been the same: “No comment.”

This thundering silence perhaps explains why the Israeli Embassy in Washington has not provided an account or explanation of this depredation on the Temple Mount. Why raise questions and create a problem when nobody really cares?

Hershel Shanks is editor of Biblical Archaeology Review and author of “Jerusalem’s Temple Mount — From Solomon to the Golden Dome” (Continuum, 2007).