During the Syrian war, a group of archeologists risk their lives to record the damage being done to their country’s cultural heritage, just as it was being taken away from them.
This episode was written and produced by Zeina Dowidar and Alex Atack, and edited by Dana Ballout with additional support from Nadeen Shaker. Fact checking by Tamara Juburi and sound design by Sara Kaddouri.
Thank you to Alice Fordham and Salman Ahad Khan for their help recording interviews for this story, and to Abdullah Al Assil, who performed the voice of Adnan.
Support this podcast on patreon.com/kerningcultures for as little as $2 a month.
Note: our transcripts are made with a combination of automated software and human transcribers, and may not reflect the audio with 100% accuracy.
DANA BALLOUT: A quick warning; this episode contains descriptions of violence.
Amr Al-Azm is a Syrian archaeologist, and in the early 2000s, he was working as a lecturer at the University of Damascus. And during his time there, one of his favorite things to do with his students, was to make the 150 mile trip to Palmyra, northeast of Damascus to visit the ancient Temple of Bel at sunrise.
AMR AL-AZM: There’s a particular ritual that any visitor is advised if they are able to do so, and that’s to go and visit it early in the morning very early in the morning at dawn, so when the sun is rising. The building itself is on an east-west axis and so as the sun rises in the east and is beginning to rise, it’s quite dark, obviously still and you sit standing there and you’re just waiting. And then this burst of light is just going to explode inside the room and it’s quite spectacular.
DANA BALLOUT: The Temple of Bel was built around 2000 years ago, and it was one of Syria’s most loved and important ancient sites. It had lived countless lives, as the city around it was ruled by different empires. Around 32 AD At first it was dedicated to a Mesopotamian god. Then it was a church during the Byzantine era, then a mosque after that. Before the Syrian war, it also hosted the Palmyra Music Festival. But in 2015, it was destroyed by ISIS.
AMR AL-AZM: The generations that will come after us, that the children, grandchildren great-grandchildren Syrians – they’re never going to be able to have that experience. My children have never been to Palmyra. Now, they might be able to see pictures of the Temple of Bel. They might even see a recreation or a reconstruction, but it won’t be the real thing. And more importantly, they’ll never be able to have that same experience I had. And I think that’s really tragic. But I think every Syrian who feels some sort of connection with a place or a location that’s been damaged or destroyed will have their own tale to tell of what they’ve lost and how they feel that loss.
DANA BALLOUT: The sunrise over Palmyra isn’t the only part of their heritage that Syrian children born today will never know. The wounds to Syria’s cultural heritage cut much deeper than that.
A part of that wound is the proliferation of illegal artifact trafficking, from places like Palmyra and other historical sites across Syria.
Our story today is about that – it’s about the inner workings of an industry built on stolen memories, on stolen history – of things modern day Syrians will never get to experience themselves, and the extraordinary efforts by ordinary Syrians like Amr who risked their lives to try to document their country’s heritage just as it was being taken away from them.
AMR AL-AZM: I’m not the hero of this story. This is not about what I did or did not do. The guys on the ground, the guys who risked their lives to get the photos and images and then transmitting them knowing full well that if they were ever caught with a telephone by ISIS or the regime for that matter with that kind of information, they would be killed and killed horribly. They’re the heroes of our story.
DANA BALLOUT: Today is a story of those heroes. I’m Dana Ballout, and this is Kerning Cultures. Stories from the Middle East and North Africa, and the spaces in between.
DANA BALLOUT: Today’s episode comes to us from producers Zeina Dowidar and Alex Atack.
ALEX ATACK: In 2011, at the beginning of the Syrian conflict, Amr was living in a small town in Ohio in the USA. And he watched on the news as the situation in his country got worse and worse.
AMR AL-AZM: So in Syria, in 2011…
ARCHIVE: It was the year of people power, of revolution.
AMR AL-AZM: You know, you have the Arab spring sweeping the region…
ARCHIVE: Protests in Bahrain, Morocco, Jordan. The world’s attention now focussed on Syria. Will it be the next domino to fall?
AMR AL-AZM: By the end of 2011 and going into 2012 effectively what had started out as civil society peaceful protests has now essentially degenerated…
ARCHIVE: Across Syria, hundreds of lightly armed, poorly trained rebel groups, are fighting to overthrow one of the Middle East’s last remaining dictators: Bashar Al Assad.
AMR AL-AZM: … into a armed confrontation between a militarized opposition on one side and the regime’s military forces and allies on the other. Once that happens in early 2012, literally – first of all, the conflict spreads very, very quickly to almost the entire country and the scale of destruction that is occurring in its wake is just phenomenal. In that process of this disintegration and destruction, cultural heritage becomes a casualty of this conflict.
ZEINA DOWIDAR: The state sector was the largest employer in Syria, and so when the state institutions started to collapse, people’s livelihoods collapsed alongside it. And when that happened, they started looking for new ways to make a living.
AMR AL-AZM:. The looting starts in 2012. And I think a lot of it was what we referred to as subsistence looting. This is people who’ve lost their livelihoods. They know that there’s buried treasure – at least they assume in their minds that there’s buried treasure all over the place. Every Syrian knows someone whose uncle from their great grandfather’s side from his second wife, whilst digging in their courtyard or basement or something came across a buried pot of gold. So there’s this kind of urban myth almost, you know, that there’s this gold somewhere. So people start to dig around and look for it. And so we see this extensive looting start to spread right across Syria.
ZEINA DOWIDAR: But Amr was watching this from halfway across the world, and it was basically impossible for him to get a clear picture of what was actually going on inside his home country. Foreign reporters, human rights monitors and cultural heritage groups had very little access to Syria.
So he co-founded this emergency initiative called Day After, and started scouting around to put together a team of archaeologists and grassroots activists in the country – made up of people he’d known from his teaching days in Damascus.
AMR AL-AZM: We had recruited local, again, people from the community, including local archeologists active site monitors. So they would go out and try to record and document damage to the local cultural heritage sites, local museums, et cetera, whatever they can visit. And they would go there try to document that damage.
ZEINA DOWIDAR: They were like an impromptu detective squad, gathering eye witness reports and photographs of the destruction of cultural heritage in Syria. One of those site monitors was a man called Adnan Al Mohamed. We interviewed him in Arabic and had an actor voice his lines in English.
ADNAN AL MOHAMED: [Clip of Adnan speaking Arabic]
ADNAN AL MOHAMED (VOICE OVER): He was my university professor, and he taught me that artifacts are not just old things from the past, but that they’re part of us. Even his lectures were different. He used to stand on the table and speak about how amazing historical artifacts are and how valuable they are.
AMR AL-AZM: Yes, yes, no, I did, well, you know, there’s a kind of a reason for some of this in that, you know, this is the late 90s and early 2000s. And we had very little resources to teach our students with. And when I say very few resources, literally all we had was a chalkboard. And then later on, they upgraded us to a whiteboard and that was it. So often I would have to try to be very creative in trying to help students visualize whatever it is I was describing.
ALEX ATACK: And clearly, at least for Adnan, it worked. Those lessons stuck with him. As an adult, he cared deeply about his country’s cultural heritage. But in 2013 he first noticed that people were looting artifacts from Manbij – which is where he’s from, in the north of Syria.
ADNAN AL MOHAMED: [Clip of Adnan speaking Arabic]
ADNAN AL MOHAMED (VOICE OVER): At this point, life was still very normal – there wasn’t any danger. The war was just at the frontlines. But our work was on the outskirts where the archaeological and historical areas are, and there was no danger there. Everything changed when ISIS came.
ALEX ATACK: ISIS took control of Manbij in 2014. Before that it’d been under the control of various rebel groups.
ADNAN AL MOHAMED (VOICE OVER): The day they came into our area, the ISIS convoy passed by, and they had about seven tanks and five or six 4×4 cars that had ISIS fighters inside. I watched as they arrived in my village, and took someone from the village to show them around.
We started to feel that even something as simple as taking photos of monuments was dangerous. We didn’t know who we were dealing with because they were all different nationalities. It was scary.
ZEINA DOWIDAR: And, ISIS quickly realised that there was money to be made in looting and exporting antiquities.
AMR AL-AZM: First thing they do is they institutionalize the looting. They see cultural heritage as a resource. And so as a resource, like any other resource, it gets put under diwan al rikaz and it then becomes something to exploit.
ZEINA DOWIDAR: Diwan al rikaz was ISIS’ ministry for resource management. Amr explained to us that that’s where they set up their archaeology department – basically to control the trafficking and the sale of artifacts. And they would sell these artifacts at auctions in the the northern city of Raqqa.
AMR AL-AZM: Everything, everything. Mosaics, glass, statues, reliefs – Palmerine reliefs from Palmyra. Gold, coins, artifacts. From little low grade material to really nice, highly exquisite unique pieces. Everything. Anything they could get their hands on.
ZEINA DOWIDAR: And within a year, it became a really profitable operation for them. artifacts could sell to foreign buyers for as much as $35,000 apiece.
ALEX ATACK: But, because Syria was basically inaccessible to foreign monitoring groups or journalists, the outside world were really struggling for reliable information on how big this operation was.
AMR AL-AZM: And so that’s basically, that was basically Adnan’s mission – his mission was to go into, back into the areas that he originally came from. So the east Aleppo countryside, the Manbij area, and then try to push down as far as he could to Raqqa whenever possible.
ZEINA DOWIDAR: With a couple of hundred dollars a month from Amr’s organisation, Adnan would drive his motorbike from his village outside of Manbij into the city center, where ISIS would hold these antique auctions. Or, he’d visit sites they’d destroyed and take pictures, smuggling the files back home on flash drive that he kept hidden in his sock.
ADNAN AL MOHAMED: [Clip of Adnan speaking Arabic]
ADNAN AL MOHAMED (VOICE OVER): Sometimes I went to Manbij twice a week, and beheadings were common. I always saw them beheading young people. Everybody was pale and you could see the fear in their faces. I didn’t believe that I’d survive ISIS so, I wanted to deliver this information to someone who could use it in the media or in academia.
ALEX ATACK: He’d be in ISIS controlled territory for a week or two at a time, without being able to communicate with anybody outside of Syria – even his wife, who lived with his three children in Turkey.
ADNAN AL MOHAMED: [Clip of Adnan speaking Arabic]
ADNAN AL MOHAMED (VOICE OVER): When I spent more than a week without calling, she would call Amr and tell him that I hadn’t called. I used to tell her that, ‘if I go a month without calling, don’t worry, I won’t be putting myself in danger.’ She encouraged me but I knew that she was scared.
ALEX ATACK: When he had what he needed, Adnan would get back on his motorbike wearing a black leather jacket and head north, through ISIS checkpoints on the way out.
ADNAN AL MOHAMED (VOICE OVER): ISIS liked the color black. I was keen to blend in as much as possible, with the right length beard and hair length, shaved moustache, and short clothes, because they were closely monitoring how we looked, and it was the first thing they checked at the checkpoints.
They would take anybody who looked different out of their car and interrogate them, asking them about things like prayers to assess their knowledge and interest in religion.
It was all routine questions, and I started to figure out the pattern of what happens [at] these checkpoints. I made my sentences short and to the point. The more you say, the more chance you would make a mistake.
ZEINA DOWIDAR: Once he was past the checkpoints, he would drive up to a town called Jarabalous, right on the border with Turkey. Amr had gotten him a Turkish SIM card, and from there Adnan could pick up enough signal to send the pictures he’d taken to his wife in Turkey, and she would forward them to Amr in the US.
AMR AL-AZM: And that’s how we communicated while he was inside. And of course, as soon as he did that, he would then destroy all this information off his phone and get back.
ZEINA DOWIDAR: Adnan would send back pictures of ISIS’ excavation sites, or a report on a conversation he’d had with a local dealer – details about how exactly ISIS’ trafficking operation worked.
It was valuable, detailed information. And Adnan was in a unique position to be able to gather it. But while he was undercover, there was no way of getting a message out to Amr – or even to his family.
AMR AL-AZM: And I would be waiting for his transmission, waiting for like literally sometimes two, three weeks for him to get out again safely and then I would know he’s safe and I could then breathe.
ALEX ATACK: Adnan was able to collect information on what was being bought and sold in ISIS antiquities auctions, but that was all he could do. Obviously, he couldn’t do anything to stop it. He told us, it was painful to have no choice but to stand by and watch as his country’s cultural heritage was being rolled up into crates and smuggled over the border by truck or by boat.
ZEINA DOWIDAR: ISIS’ looting and trafficking operation is the most destructive crime against Syrian cultural heritage that the country has seen in decades. But it isn’t the whole picture – ISIS is just the darkest, most depraved corner of it.
Amr told us that most of the cultural heritage trafficked out of Syria in the last ten years was done by what he called ‘subsistence looters’. That is, the people who have lost their jobs and turned to trafficking because there was nothing else left.
ALEX ATACK: From Raqqa, the capital of ISIS’ so-called caliphate in the mid-2010s, artifacts would be transported on trucks overland, along the same ancient trading routes that have flowed in and out of the country for centuries.
AMR AL-AZM: There’s a road, there’s a main highway that runs from Raqqa all the way to Tal Abyad and then into Turkey. So obviously it’s on that main sort of road, highway. So you would hold the auction, and then you would provide escort transportation, means to move these things all the way up to the border. And then on the other side, obviously there are smugglers people who specialize in this kind of stuff, and they would take it out over the border into Turkey, and then from Turkey out into Europe and the rest of the world.
ZEINA DOWIDAR: In Turkey, they’d be met by dealers and buyers. Some were from the Middle East, but also from Europe and the US. For example, there was this one well known buyer Amr had been trying to track down.
AMR AL-AZM: She was a German lady who literally regularly came down to Southern Turkey. She would set up shop there and then she would have people bring goods up through the kind of the border smuggled into where she is. And then they would show her the wares and she would buy what she wants and then they would get shipped out to her. But for the most part you don’t even need to do that because a lot of that stuff gets also touted on social media – Facebook, WhatsApp.
ZEINA DOWIDAR: Going back as early as 2014 – even before ISIS took over Manbij – Amr and Adnan started to notice these shady smuggling networks popping up on WhatsApp and Facebook. Looters would post photos of the artifacts they were selling, and buyers from around the world would snap them up, sometimes for as much as tens of thousands of dollars an item.
AMR AL-AZM: And here’s the thing about Facebook, for example; those same features that we use on a daily basis communicate and find so kind of useful and that’s why we kind of hooked on to it, it also represents the perfect toolkit for would be criminals would be traffickers because it’s they use exactly the same features, but they use it to advertise their own, whatever it is they want to advertise.
ZEINA DOWIDAR: These groups were enormous – some of them had as many as 500,000 members. And at the time, none of this was against Facebook’s rules. Like a virus, these groups kept growing until Facebook basically became a one-stop-shop for antique traffickers. In 2019, a study Amr was a part of found that one third of antique items listed for sale on Facebook were from conflict zones like Syria.
ALEX ATACK: And when these antiquities have found a buyer, things get even more complicated. Once they’re smuggled out of Syria, they’ll often be moved to a third country which has a legal antiquities trade like Israel or the UAE. Or, to somewhere where they can take advantage of a corrupt system.
AMR AL-AZM: Some countries are known for, let’s say being easier to move goods through; Lebanon is one example. It’s very corrupt and malfeasant place, okay? It’s rotten to the core and you can run any kind of illegal business you want literally out of Beirut, if you pay money.
ZEINA DOWIDAR: Sometimes they’ll stay in these third countries for months or even years before they’re shipped out and sold. But when they eventually are, it’s often to Europe or the US, which is where antiques from the Middle East are most in demand.
MARK ALTAWEEL: Personally, I don’t see why we’d do that, but I mean, I guess it’s – for the Middle East you know, obviously the Bible connections. Obviously for Egypt, it’s the pharaohs and the pyramids and all that. And Mesopotamia the beginnings of civilization and all this as well.
ZEINA DOWIDAR: Mark Altaweel is a Vice Dean at University College London, and as part of his research, he tracks the trade of antiquities coming from the Middle East.
MARK ALTAWEEL: So these stories make people want to know that they are somehow, you know, you see sometimes in people’s eyes, they’re holding something and they say, ‘oh my gosh, this is something 5,000 years or 10,000 years or whatever’, they just seem amazed by it.
And it’s also economic, let’s face it. I mean, for certainly what very expensive items and having antiquities is a great value. It’s like investing in gold or something, you know, it’s like Bitcoin in a way for except having ancient objects as Bitcoin, you know, so there’s value there, right? So it can increase over time.
ALEX ATACK: For researchers like Mark, it’s really difficult to track how many illegal antiques there are for sale at any given moment in Europe or the US. From the outside looking in, the whole market for this stuff is full of grey areas.
But to simplify. For an antique item to be sold legally in the US or in Europe, it needs to have what they call provenance. That is, essentially, a kind of sales history to prove that it hasn’t been taken from its country of origin after 1970.
1970, because that’s when UNESCO brought in this rule that basically said, any cultural items that leave their country of origin from now on are considered illegal loot. But anything that was already out of the country is fine.
AMR AL-AZM: So I’m a – let’s say I’m a dealer, okay? And I acquire this item. The only way I can claim that it’s legal is if I can demonstrate that this was somehow acquired prior to 1970. Then anything that happens to it beyond that is legal. But only legal from a international – but if you want to talk about, you know, ethical legality, no it’s not legal. It was looted!
ZEINA DOWIDAR: This is one of those grey areas that we were talking about. Because, according to Amr, it’s often left up to the dealers and buyers to check provenance for themselves.
AMR AL-AZM: Okay. So this is this, we come down to the issue of due diligence, different countries, and I’m talking about Western Europe. I’m talking about the United States. Different countries have different ways of determining what is considered to be due diligence.
Right now, it’s, you know, you as a buyer and a seller are supposed to do your due diligence, you’re supposed to make sure that the object just as you make sure the object is authentic. Everybody does a due diligence for authenticity because nobody wants to buy a fake. Oh, we put a lot of effort and time into that. But when it comes to provenance, we get a little sketchy, we get a little hazy.
I mean, I’ve seen provenance, like the seller swears that they’ve had it in their family swears – what do you mean swears? Really? Swears? Or – on the owner’s assurances. What assurance are we talking about? Or just stated, you know, oh, this has been this, do you have any paperwork to prove? Do you have any – none whatsoever. Now why can they get away with all this? It’s because there are no consequences.
MARK ALTAWEEL: You have to be really stupid to get caught. And, and if you look at a number of convictions from the antiquities laws that they exist in the UK, for instance, it’s very few – you could probably in one hand, you can count the number of convictions.
The people I know who have been caught had been caught because they were ignorant of the law – so it takes something like ignorance to lead to someone being caught. And then that means that laws are not strong, in my opinion, it means that the burden of proof is often on people like me or others who’re trying to find people who are stealing these things and that’s not the way it should be my opinion.
ALEX ATACK: I’m curious if like, if I go on eBay today and I type in, I don’t know, things like Iraqi artifacts, something basic like that do like the things that come up are they, are they legit legal sales?
MARK ALTAWEEL: Well, it’s, I would guess probably a lot are not legit, but the problem is there’s no way to prove that. So in a sense that there’s nothing stopping eBay to sell them because there’s no way to prove that they’re illegal and the checks I think are fairly minimal in terms of what’s done to prevent or to ensure that the artifact being sold is legal, effectively.
ALEX ATACK: If you do an eBay search using the coded language of the antiques industry – vague words like “Mesopotamian” or “Byzantine” to stay away from words like “Syrian” or “Iraqi” – you come up with all sorts:
“Superb Mesopotamian white stone bull amulet: 450 pounds.
“Beautiful Byzantine Religious Cross Amulet Depicting Saint”: 50 pounds.
“Museum Quality Original Ancient Plaque Relief of Ishtar, the Mesopotamian goddess”: 3588 pounds.
I reached out to the seller of that last one – their username was Salvage Hunter – to ask if they’d talk to me about the provenance the item and they said:
“I am selling the collection which I have inherited from my grandfather. It was collected in 1930-1960, before I was born. I don’t know anything about the market, don’t think I can give any useful information to you.”
I replied: On your profile it says you “love hunting for treasures” and you “have a huge collection of antiques and art” – are they all from your Grandfather? Given you sell so much, you must know at least a little about the market?
They didn’t get back to me.
Some listings make it clear they have provenance in their title, but most don’t mention it at all.
MARK ALTAWEEL: So that’s why, I mean, I personally would discourage anyone buying anything on eBay that deals with the past, because it’s a good chance it was attained probably illegally.
ZEINA DOWIDAR: We got in touch with dozens more people in the antique trade – everyone from eBay sellers to the bigger auction houses. Barely any of them responded, and only one was willing to talk to us in a recorded interview.
CIARA PETERSON: Hello?
ALEX ATACK: Oh hi, that Ciara?
CIARA PETERSON: Yeah, Ciara speaking.
ALEX ATACK: Ciara was selling an ancient Mesopotamian seal stamp on eBay for £220, along with thousands of other items. She told us that roughly 20% of the items she sells are from the Middle East, and she said that she buys most of them from job lots – that is, buying a big batch of items from an auction house or private seller in bulk.
ALEX ATACK: So like, something we’ve been hearing a bit about is like provenance, especially when it comes to items from the Middle East and so when you buy something from a job lot, like, does it come with provenance or?
CIARA PETERSON: No, not always no. I mean, rarely happens whenever we have something with provenance.
ALEX ATACK: Oh, it rarely happens?
CIARA PETERSON: No.
ALEX ATACK: Oh, okay.
CIARA PETERSON: Especially with job lots, because it’s just like a collection of things maybe from a collector or from a house clearance or something like this. So they don’t necessarily necessarily come with something that’s attached to the person or where it’s come from.
ALEX ATACK: So you kind of don’t really have any idea about what, where it came from before you had it?
CIARA PETERSON: No, no.
ALEX ATACK: She told us that, when she buys an item that doesn’t have provenance and she doesn’t know much about where it came from, she’ll bring an expert in to take a look – but that’s mostly to make sure it’s not fake – not to make sure it’s legal.
ALEX ATACK: I guess, I don’t want to sound rude. I’m just asking, like, how do you know that, the items that you’re selling have been in the UK for long enough time that they haven’t been like trafficked from, let’s say Syria recently during the war?
CIARA PETERSON: Honestly, there’s truly not really a way to know, because I get all of my items from auction houses. So, I mean, it would be them that would have to have that responsibility of knowing that information, basically. I don’t know that information. I don’t know where the auction house got it from, so there’s no way for me to know.
ZEINA DOWIDAR: We’re not saying that Ciara was selling items that were illegally trafficked into the UK, or that her items had false provenance. As Mark said, theres really no way of knowing if any one item is legal or illegal when the due diligence falls only on the seller.
But from what we can tell, this is all another massive grey area with eBay dealers. It seems to be a bit different with more established auction houses. A lot of them have a section on their website that lays out strict policies on stolen antiquities. But none of the antique houses we reached out to wanted to talk to us for the story.
ALEX ATACK: Seeing the other end of this industry, I was so surprised by how much of this stuff there is on the market just in the UK. Considering this trade has been going on for so long – from the darkest days of European colonialism through to the Syrian civil war and into today, I guess I’m just kind of surprised that there’s still so many of these items on sale.
To me, it honestly felt completely depressing – speaking to Adnan, who had literally risked his life to document this illegal trade because he cared so much about preserving whatever was left of Syria’s cultural heritage. And then on the other end, seeing these dealers and sellers in the UK who seemed to look at cultural heritage as a commodity more than anything else.
For Amr and Mark, the only way to clean this industry up is better government import restrictions.
AMR AL-AZM: This is the supply this is the supply and demand end okay. And remember the supply side is driven by demand. So, you know, we often focus on the supply side because that’s the, in some ways easier side to blame. Well, you know, you’re destroying your heritage, you’re looting it. You’re, you know, we’re trying to save it et cetera. How about you try and convince your people no to buy looted antiquities? How about you basically clean up the trade? How about you make it illegal, so illegal, so grievous that if you’re caught with a trafficked item from a conflict zone like Syria, that you will go to jail for 30, 40, 50 years? You know, then I guarantee you there will be no more demand or the demand will drop to such a level that basically people won’t do it anymore. You’re not doing anyone a favor by buying this item you’re only pleasing yourself. The best place for this item is to stay where it came from.
ALEX ATACK: Which makes me think of Adnan, who’s story really sent us off on this journey, and how he risked his life again and again to try to save whatever tiny corner of Syria’s cultural heritage that he could. But ultimately, he was one person working with a small team, up against a relentless, sprawling, international looting machine.
ZEINA DOWIDAR: Sometimes, people would come to him with an antique that they wanted to get his opinion on, often because they hoped to sell it to a broker.
ADNAN AL MOHAMED: [Clip of Adnan speaking Arabic]
ADNAN AL MOHAMED (VOICE OVER): They were not always ISIS fighters… just ordinary people who were poor and need an income. I used to ask about the price, and they’d tell me they’ve got a bid of two thousand dollars for it, for example. I’d try as hard as possible to convince them to keep it in the country – I’d say if you wait, I can get you a higher bid.
ALEX ATACK: But that’s all he could do in these situations; try to buy more time. He couldn’t buy the items himself – the money would’ve gone directly to ISIS. And anyway, he just didn’t have that kind of money.
ADNAN AL MOHAMED: [Clip of Adnan speaking Arabic]
ADNAN AL MOHAMED (VOICE OVER): When I held these artifacts, I was in agony because I knew they would leave the country sooner or later. I would just take photos of them and document them… that’s the most I could do, hoping that one day, they’d find their way back to Syria.
ZEINA DOWIDAR: Inshallah. One day.
DANA BALLOUT: In 2016, Adnan left Syria and moved to Turkey to join his wife and children. He told us it was hard, and that he struggled to find his place at first, and for about three years, he was working in a restaurant. Then he joined this British organisation called the Council for At Risk Academics, and through them he was able to get back into academia. He still studies and he writes about Syria’s cultural heritage.
ALEX ATACK: We reached out to eBay and Live Auctioneers to ask about their policies on illegal or looted artifacts.
Live Auctioneers told us that anybody selling on their platform has to do their due diligence to make sure that what they’re selling is legal – essentially, it’s up to the seller.
They said they have a zero tolerance policy on listing anything that’s suspected to be stolen. But when we asked if they take an active role in making sure the items sold on their website are all legal, they didn’t give us an answer.
eBay said: “The sale of illicit antiques and artifacts is prohibited on eBay, in line with UK and international laws and regulations. We work closely with authorities such as UNESCO, Interpol, and the European Commission to provide a safe and secure online marketplace that prevents illegal trade, while enabling the legal sale of antiquities.
All sellers on eBay are required to comply with our Artifact policy. We have automatic block filters that prevent listings of any items which breach our policies, and we also have teams continuously monitoring the site to identify and remove any prohibited listings. We also take strong enforcement action against sellers who violate these policies, which can include temporary bans and permanent suspensions.”
Amr told us that Facebook updated its community standards in June 2020 to ban the sale and exchange of cultural heritage items. But, he said, the rules aren’t widely enforced.
DANA: After the break, we dig deeper into the future of experiencing cultural heritage, and trying to revive lost sites.
ZEINA DOWIDAR: We’ve focussed mostly on Syria this episode, but the destruction of cultural heritage is a problem across the Middle East and North Africa. Just like Syria, Iraq had suffered from mass cultural looting under ISIS. We spoke about this with Dr. Rozhen Kamal Mohammed-Amin.
ROZHEN KAMAL MOHAMMED-AMIN: I am one of those people who moves their hands a lot! I speak with my hands!
ZEINA DOWIDAR: She’s the director of the digital cultural heritage research center at Sulaimani Polytechnic university in Iraqi Kurdistan.
ROZHEN KAMAL MOHAMMED-AMIN: Yes, actually my fascination with cultural heritage dates back to early days when I was in elementary school I was hoping to either, if I am not an architect, I would have said I would be like to become an archeologist or an – those people who go to space. I forgot the name right away.
ALEX ATACK: An astronaut?
ROZHEN KAMAL MOHAMMED-AMIN: An astronaut – thank you! Yeah. So that’s why –
ALEX ATACK: That’s a big difference though, between those two jobs it’s like in the ground or in the sky.
ROZHEN KAMAL MOHAMMED-AMIN: Absolutely. And I think that it was this very big difference that made me fascinated with the two, because it’s all about discovering mysteries.
ZEINA DOWIDAR: And one of those mysteries that she’s spent years unravelling in her work, is this question of what value we actually place on cultural heritage.
ROZHEN KAMAL MOHAMMED-AMIN: For me, cultural heritage is anything that people have memory with. So from past and even currently.
ALEX ATACK: She was the first person to put it to us like this, but she told us that she thinks of cultural heritage as like a human right.
ROZHEN KAMAL MOHAMMED-AMIN: Basically, if you don’t, if you cannot get access to a cultural heritage site, Or a cultural heritage product be tangible or intangible then basically that’s mean you are kind of being stripped from a right that you have as as a human.
ALEX ATACK can you kind of imagine a world without cultural heritage? What does that look like? And what effect does that have on people?
ROZHEN KAMAL MOHAMMED-AMIN: You know, we call humans social animals basically – we are very social towards not ourselves in our ourselves, but also our connections, our origins. One time I was thinking about why humans all the time throughout history, they wanted to leave a memory. It’s something I mean, basically, even from the ancient times people were leaving writing texts or something to basically leave a mark, something about themselves. The legacy, their legacy after life, they wanted to be remembered.
So I think a life without cultural heritage means basically a life without being remembered for people who were living before us. And what does that mean in terms of people living before us? It’s basically saying they don’t pass anything to the next generation. It seems that somehow for human, this is kind of one of those needs – maybe they should even classify it in hierarchy of need, need to be remembered.
So I think a life without a cultural heritage means a life without that connection or that interaction to people’s past. And which is something it seems to be encoded in our genetic, I don’t know, for whatever reason, humans throughout history always wanted to be remembered.
ALEX ATACK: I wasn’t expecting such a beautiful answer.
ZEINA DOWIDAR: For researchers like Rozhen, the challenge they’re facing at the moment is this: now that so much cultural heritage around the world is gone, how do we find a way for children growing up today to experience their country’s history?
ALEX ATACK: Rozhen and her team work with virtual reality technology to create digital exhibitions of looted and destroyed heritage. For instance, one project she was working on when we spoke to her looked at the destruction of Yazidi cultural heritage by ISIS.
ROZHEN KAMAL MOHAMMED-AMIN: And our goal is to understand, to answer that very specific question you just asked is to see how a virtual reality exhibition that create the whole experience for what Yazidi’s has gone through, then how can that contribute to first of all, raising awareness about the genocide of the Yazidis as well as connecting people with their cause and making them aware about the destruction that took place in their cultural heritage, as well as in their own life in everyday Yazidi’s life.
ZEINA DOWIDAR: The thought of being able to see what was lost by stepping into a virtual archaeological site, or museum, was so fascinating to me. It reminds us of the importance of cultural heritage, and how empty our lives are without it.
ROZHEN KAMAL MOHAMMED-AMIN: Now we are trying to raise people’s awareness about cultural heritage. And then when you do that, it’s more likely to inspire action and change in their behavior, which is kind of people becoming more protected for their cultural heritage. There are a lot of body of research that shows, you know, virtual reality is working – they call it even as an empathy machine. It’s puts you in the shoe of someone else.
ALEX ATACK: Rozhen wasn’t the only person we spoke to who told us about different ways of bringing back cultural heritage. Amr told us about how we can use technology not just to replicate the heritage – but maybe even to track it and bring it back. It’s called Smart Water.
AMR AL-AZM: And so Smart Water was initially developed to help local police forces in England, you know, find stolen goods and the basic concept behind Smart Water water is it, it’s a polymer that’s uses nano technology, and you apply it on, you know, items.
ALEX ATACK: It almost looks like paint – as their website states, it’s a ‘traceable liquid’. Basically, each pot has its own unique signature.
AMR AL-AZM: Each batch if you will of smart water has a unique signature to it.
ALEX ATACK: And when you put it on an object it, it dries basically invisible, like invisible ink. And then let’s say that item is stolen, and when the police shine a special light on it.
AMR AL-AZM: It will light up like a Christmas tree.
ZEINA DOWIDAR: Archeologists have started applying smart water to artifacts at risk of being looted, in the hopes that one day, they can find their way back home.
DANA BALLOUT: This episode was written and produced by Zeina Dowidar and Alex Atack and edited by me, Dana Ballout, with editorial support from Nadeen Shaker and Anastasia Campbell. Fact checking and additional research by Tamara Juburi, sound design by Paul Alouf.
ZEINA DOWIDAR: Thank you to everyone we spoke to for this story: Amr Al Azm, Adnan Al Mohammed, Rozhen Kamal Mohammed-Amin, Mark Altaweel and Ciara Peterson.
ALEX ATACK: Thank you also to Alice Fordham and Salman Ahad Khan for their help recording interviews for this story, and to Abdullah Al Assil, who performed the voice of Adnan.
DANA: We’ll be back with a new episode next week. Thanks for listening. Take care.