Looting and Trafficking of Antiquities in the Middle East

Project image: 
Monica Hanna, Iris Gerlach, Alexander Nagel, Tess Davis

Monica Hanna, Iris Gerlach, Alexander Nagel and Tess Davis: Looting and Trafficking of Antiquities in the Middle East

Thursday, April 7, 9:30 am

Wilson Center, 1300 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Washington DC (Metro: Federal Triangle)

Archaeological sites and artifacts are part of the history of humankind. Their preservation enables us to read and interpret them in their physical contexts. This forms important parts of our self-awareness as humans. Ancient history is a collective good and a resource for learning which belongs to everyone. But unfortunately, archaeological sites have been ransacked. Buyers are willing to pay a lot of money for such antiquities. Criminal networks traffic illegally mined artifacts and feed a special market in which booty becomes commodity.

This panel brings new voices into the current discussion: Iris Gerlach (Yemen), Alexander Nagel (Washington DC), and Monica Hanna (Cairo, participating via Internet). This discussion will take stock of the operations underway by grave robbers, and ask how the warring sides have contributed to or prevented looting and trafficking. It will look at the impact the growing demand for antique cultural treasures is having on their preservation and protection. How does private ownership relate to common property in terms of UN standards? Does such ownership strip those objects of their value as the memory of humankind or help preserve this property?


Egyptian archaeologist Monica Hanna (participating via Skype) became a leader in exposing the rampant looting of Egyptian antiquities following Egypt’s 2011 revolution. She uses social media to alert colleagues around the world to the looting in an effort to reduce the demand and save Egypt’s cultural property. Hanna visits sites to document the looting as it is occurring and appears in the Egyptian media to confront government officials, practices which expose her to threats. Among other accolades, Hanna received the SAFE (Saving Antiquities for Everyone) Award in 2014 for her work to raise public awareness of this problem. Hanna holds a PhD in Archaeology from the University of Pisa and a bachelor's degree in Egyptology and archaeological chemistry from American University in Cairo. She completed post-doctoral studies at Humboldt University, Berlin.

Iris Gerlach, Dr. phil. (Munich 1997) in Near Eastern Archaeology, Classical Archaeology and Assyriology, has been head of the Sanaa Branch of the Oriental Department at the German Archaeological Institute since 2000. Director of various archaeological projects in Yemen, Ethiopia and Qatar, her research interests are South Arabian and Pre-Aksumite Archaeology; cultural contacts, especially trade and migration; temples and religion; ancient water management; burial rites; and art history. She heads restoration and capacity building projects in Yemen and Ethiopia. In 2011, she became director of monitoring and awareness-raising projects dealing with the looting of museums, illegal excavations of archaeological sites and other destruction of cultural heritage in Yemen.

Originally from Berlin, Germany, Alexander Nagel is a Research Associate at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History. Nagel received an MA from Humboldt University Berlin in 2003, and a PhD from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor in 2010. He is supporting the work of communities who preserve heritage sites and document the illicit trade in antiquities, and has lectured on the heritage preservation of Yemen, Greece, Iran and the Middle East worldwide.

Tess Davis is a lawyer and archaeologist by training, and Executive Director of the Antiquities Coalition. She oversees the organization’s work to fight cultural racketeering worldwide. Since 2013, Davis has been affiliated with the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research at the University of Glasgow. Prior to her current position, she was executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Cultural Heritage Preservation, a not-for-profit institution based in Washington, DC. She previously worked for the nongovernmental organization Heritage Watch in Cambodia, first as Project Coordinator, and then as assistant Director. Her career began at the Archaeological Institute of America.

Moderated by Henri J. Barkey, Director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He is the former Bernard L. and Bertha F. Cohen Professor at Lehigh University. Barkey is also a former public policy scholar at the Wilson Center. His most recent works include Turkey's Syria Predicament (Survival, 2014) and Iraq, Its Neighbors and the United States, co-edited with Phebe Marr and Scott Lasensky (Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace, 2011). He served as a member of the U.S. State Department Policy Planning Staff working primarily on issues related to the Middle East, the Eastern Mediterranean, and intelligence from 1998 to 2000.

RSVP on the Wilson Center website two weeks prior to the event.