Looted Goods from the Near East

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Looted Goods from the Near East: Attacks on the Cultural Heritage of Humanity
by Dr. Iris Gerlach, German Archaeological Institute, Orient Department, Head of the Sanaa Branch

Illegal excavations, the plunder of museums, destruction through military conflicts, religiously- motivated eradication of entire sites: our cultural heritage is now experiencing a time in which national structures are increasingly collapsing through war and terror. Ineffective central mechanisms of control in the distressed countries of the Near East – Syria, Iraq and Yemen – are not only greatly endangered, but are threatened with complete devastation. The end of this catastrophic development is not in sight; on the contrary, the destruction does not seem to have reached its zenith.

Aghast, the global public looks on at the almost daily shocking news of cultural vandalism which is being inflicted in ever greater dimensions by the terror organization ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria; the Arabian acronym: ‘daesh’), Al-Qaida and other radical Islamic groups. Planned with a strategically diabolic deliberateness, the culture of entire regions is being annihilated through the destruction of monuments such as those in Palmyra, Nimrud and Hatra, and the looting and ruin of objects in museums like Mosul.

Religious fanaticism has led to the blowing up and complete demolition of religious sites: not only ancient temples and Jewish and Christian places of worship, but also monuments of other Islamic religious institutions such as shrines of holy persons and Shiite mosques.

Catastrophic Destruction is Taking Place in Syria, Iraq and Yemen

In the face of this horror scenario, the news that we receive from Yemen, the country on the southernmost end of the Arabian Peninsula, becomes ever more indistinct. In antiquity, the legendarily-rich region was named Arabia Felix, or Felicitous Arabia; in the Quran and the Bible it is referred to as the land of the famous Queen of Sheba.

Today, little is left of this legendary wealth. Yemen is the poorest country of the Arabian Peninsula. The absence of natural resources and few profitable economic ventures, combined with extreme corruption, inadequate educational possibilities and an uncontrolled birth rate, have hindered all attempts at development in the past decades.

War has been underway in Yemen for almost a year now, a war that has been forgotten by the world press. The military offensive that started in March 2015 by nine Arabian states under the leadership of Saudi Arabia is intended to repress the Houthi rebels, a Zaidi Shiite group in the northern part of the country which spread its rule over large parts of Yemen and seeks to reinstate the power of the Yemeni president, Abed Rabbo Mansur.

The conflicts continue to escalate, and an end to the war grows increasingly distant. Individual independent tribes, the terror organization Al-Qaida in Yemen (AQAP), the Islamic States (IS) and jihadist groups – as in Syria and Iraq – make use of the power vacuum to establish their own territorial rule in Yemen. The victims are – as usual – the local people. The United Nations has reported several thousand deaths thus far, and almost 80% of the population suffers from a lack of food and drinking water, and from insufficient or lacking medical care.

Moreover, Yemen’s unique cultural treasures are being severely affected by this war. Whether or not some places have been the target of premeditated destruction in heavy conflicts cannot be verified, but the collateral damage alone is immense. Reports about the plunder of museums in areas controlled by Al-Qaida are increasing, and systematic illicit diggings have taken on alarming dimensions. These as well as illegal trade in cultural goods were already a great problem prior to the crisis, but now they are expanding with the increasing anarchy throughout the country. It is difficult to estimate the full measure of this plunder, looting and destruction, as comprehensive information is lacking due to limited accessibility. The hitherto confirmed cases, however, testify to a catastrophic situation.

It is quite evident that the Saudi-Arabian military coalition knowingly takes the destruction of cultural goods into account in order to attain their political aims. In this tactic, several residential buildings in the Old City of Sana’a which had been designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites were completely destroyed and the inhabitants killed during presumably misdirected air attacks. The center of the Houthi movement in northern Yemen, the city of Saada, which appears on UNESCO’s World Heritage Tentative List, has been under constant fire since the beginning of the attacks. According to unconfirmed reports, the old city is almost completely destroyed.

Museums in the towns of Taiz and Dhamar in the central Yemeni highlands have been hit by air attacks too. In Dhamar, the 12,500 objects in the museum’s collection were demolished by a single air attack. Aside from medieval towns, many other monuments at ancient sites in the once-renowned land of the Queen of Sheba have been flattened to the ground by air attacks of the Saudi-Arabian coalition.

Illicit Diggings and Illegal Trade in Ancient Goods

Aside from the plunder of cultural goods, the unstable political situation in Syria, Iraq and Yemen has resulted in an often systematic, organized business of illicit diggings: one site after the other has been pillaged, in some cases systematically ploughed with bulldozers, leaving behind what looks like a pitted battlefield. Once taken out of the country, the looted objects land on the international antiquities market for private collectors. Only a very few items are offered for sale publicly in auction houses; most are sold directly to interested persons via unknown channels.

All of this has kindled anew the international debate about the illegal trade in antiquities and the handling of ancient goods that are without any definitive provenience. As a result, sometimes emotional discussions take place between the various interested groups like antique dealers, museums, collectors, archaeological institutes, etc. - issues which on the one hand reflect the dilemma of how to deal with finds of indistinct origins, and on the other express the concern of many who seek an effective solution for combatting illegal trade.

Germany is currently planning an amendment to its law on cultural goods. Among other restrictions, the import of cultural goods to Germany requires the specific permission of the respective land of origin to export the object(s). The trade in antiquities must be restricted to objects of clear and legal origin. Yet not all cultural goods that are no longer in their land of origin should be viewed as per se looted articles. It depends solely on the legitimacy of their acquisition.

One hundred years ago, it was common practice to have an official agreement between archaeological excavations in countries of the Near East and the respective state office concerning the division of finds recovered from the excavations. In this way, many objects found their way into the large museums of the world. Today, following guidelines set up by a number of reputable organizations, and in contrast to just a few years ago, as a rule museums do not buy any object whose origin is not wholly verified. Similarly, public museums accept fewer and fewer donations from private collections whose origins cannot be clearly verified.

Illicit excavations are not limited to the Near East; indeed, they are a worldwide problem. The objects, valuable in a material sense, are wrenched from the ground without any scientific excavation. With that the context of the find and its cultural association are lost, as are other archaeological artefacts and important contexts in the vicinity of the looted material which the looters presumed were of no value. Yet for scientific study they too are invaluable and important pieces of a puzzle, with which the past culture can be reconstructed. Thus, illicit diggings always signify an immeasurable and irreplaceable loss for the history of the respective country, and also for the mutual cultural heritage of humankind.

Illegal trade in cultural goods is organized criminality! Moreover, information is becoming available that such trade is being used to finance terrorism, particularly in the Near East. The export of antiquities from these countries has long been prohibited by laws and international agreements, but nonetheless, new objects – often with forged certificates of origin – are constantly appearing on the market. The argument that dealers and collectors are ‘saving’ these antiquities from the cultural vandalism of the “Islamic State” is false. Quite the contrary: They are building up the base for an illegal antiquities market.

Stricter legislation might help to curb the trade in antiquities. But the gradual change in awareness that has taken place in the past years regarding the acquisition of cultural goods with vague origins must continue to be raised, not only on a national but also on an international level.

To be clear, the issue at stake here is nothing less than the preservation of humanity’s cultural heritage!