As the conflict rages in Syria, it's a bull market for antiquities dealers and thieves.
BEIRUT — "What period it's from is not important. I just care how much it's worth," says Abu Khader, a smuggler in Majdal Anjar, a small Lebanese town on the Lebanon-Syria border. Smuggling everything from cigarettes to arms has long been a family business. But Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters low on cash have started offering alternative payment for the guns they crave -- stolen Syrian antiquities.
Cuneiform tablets, Roman friezes and statues, and Byzantine coins are particularly popular. "They give me antiquities, and I give them guns," Abu Khader puts it simply.
An AK-47 can set you back $1,200 on the black market today, and the more desirable M4 carbine can cost around $4,500. Selling antiquities can help finance these purchases. "I have moved at least 100 objects," Abu Khader says.
In addition to the Syrian civil war's horrible human and economic costs, the conflict has also devastated Syria's cultural heritage. At a February UNESCO conference, the Syrian Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM) called the looting more damaging than the fighting that is ravaging mosques, old houses, and Crusader castles.
Only 3 percent of Syria's heritage sites remain outside areas of conflict, according to a map released by the U.S. State Department's Humanitarian Information Unit. A 2012 Global Heritage Fund report also makes for grim reading: All UNESCO World Heritage sites in Syria have been affected by the war, from the old cities of Aleppo and Damascus to the Crusader castle Crac des Chevaliers to the Roman city of Bosra.
Syria is an archaeological treasure trove, featuring antiquities from the Roman, Byzantine, Umayyad, and Ottoman periods. The country hosted up to 100 foreign archeological expeditions annually before the war started. The destruction of the millennia-old minaret of the Umayyad Mosque in Aleppo on April 24 is just the latest casualty of the violence.
Looting has become more commonplace as the conflict has dragged on. "There wasn't that much evidence of looting this time last year. Now there is," says Durham University doctoral student Emma Cunliffe, author of the Global Heritage report.
Similar pillaging followed the invasion of Iraq, the war in Libya, and even the uprising in Egypt. According to Maamoun Abdel-Karim, director of the DGAM, the antiquities directorate received at least 4,000 confiscated objects over the course of 2012, most of which were recovered on their way out of the country.
The strain shows in Abdel-Karim's voice as he discusses Syria's efforts to minimize the damage to its 35 museums and 10,000 archeological sites. "We are working with the local population to preserve Syrian archeology and to avoid a repeat of Iraq's experience in 2003," he says.
The museums, Abdel-Karim says, are in good shape and the collections have been moved to secure places. The National Museum of Damascus is the most famous of the museums under his control; it has now closed its doors to the public, and its 77,000 artifacts have largely been packed away. He says the exteriors of the museums in Hama, Aleppo, and Homs have been damaged in the fighting.
Lebanese archeologist Joanne Bajjaly, who previously documented the effects of war on the cultural heritage of Lebanon and Iraq, thinks Syria's official antiquities agency may be underestimating the extent of the looting. "As nobody saw this war coming, nobody in the country's regional museums was trained to secure their collection," she explains.
Only after the war had raged for some time did Syrian officials begin to contemplate how to safeguard their country's cultural heritage. The staff of the Damascus museum only received e-training in disaster risk management and damage assessment this January.
But many regional museums were too late. "We don't know what happened in places like Hama and Homs," says Bajjaly. She adds that artifacts with numbers identifying them as belonging to Syrian museums have appeared on the international market.
But it's the archeological sites that are the real problem. "It's impossible to preserve 10,000 archeological sites in Syria," says Abdel-Karim. Unlike stolen museum artifacts, there is no database that can determine whether an item dug up from the ground originates from Syria.
The Syrian regime launched a television and radio campaign, "Syria My Homeland," to encourage local populations to protect archaeological sites. But such efforts are failing: Abdel-Karim says "armed archeological mafia gangs" orchestrate most of the looting.
"There are armed groups from Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq who threaten the population of neighboring villages, so they don't interfere, and then they loot the sites," he says.
Such plunder is not new. Mosaics from the ancient Seleucid city of Apamea were stolen last year, almost certainly on the demand of an end buyer rather than a middleman, according to sources familiar with operations of this magnitude; the mosaics were carefully dug out with specialized tools, even bulldozers. In February, another 18 mosaics, this time portraying Homer's Odyssey, were dug up in Syria' north.
Some of these instances are highly organized heists, but a lot of the smaller artifacts are simply dug up by locals. "If you are a starving farmer and you know there are objects in the site next door, you will go dig it up if you get hungry enough," says Bajjaly.
Before the war, Syria policed archaeological sites heavily, and those found illegally excavating would receive prison sentences of 10 to 15 years. Now, the regime has other priorities.
"People knew where things were before the war, but now [that] the state has disappeared, they are digging," explains a man in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, near the border with Syria, who calls himself "the teacher." His interest in antiquities started as a hobby, but now he is making money buying up Syrian antiquities and appraising the objects that FSA fighters bring the smuggler Abu Khader. The most expensive item he has seen was a cuneiform tablet that sold for $20,000. He proudly displays a carved bust of a Roman noblewoman that was dug up just across the mountains. He expects it to fetch at least $2,000.
Such small-time smuggling is often the first step in a long process that sees items eventually end up in the hands of wealthy buyers. In a Beirut antiquities shop, Roman statues now sit beside mother-of-pearl inlaid tables and antique lamps. A stone-hewed noblewoman with a headband and a young bearded man look familiar. "These are from Tadmor," says the dealer, casually referring to one of Syria's six UNESCO World Heritage sites, known in English as Palmyra. "I am keeping these for my house, but I can get another one."
These particular offerings look too refined and new to have genuinely been looted from the ruins in the Syrian desert that were once home to Queen Zenobia. Due to high demand, fakes are taking off. "About 50 percent of what I get is fake," admits smuggler Abu Khaled. But video footage from Palmyra shows similar, genuine statues being loaded into a truck and carted off.
The price of antiquities has increased tenfold over the past decade, thus providing even more motivation for would-be looters. "Owning antiquities allows you to own a piece of history" Bajjaly says. "And they buy you something much more important: prestige, particularly if you donate a high-end piece or collection to an established institution."
The biggest demand for Syrian antiquities comes from Israel, Britain, and the United States. The Persian Gulf is also a rising market, particularly Dubai, says Julian Radcliffe, director of the Art Loss Register, the only global organization dedicated to tracking stolen art. "There is a lot less custom supervision there."
UNESCO has tried to curb art smuggling through the 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. The treaty gives its 123 members the right to recover stolen or illegally exported antiquities, and it has led to requests from dealers for provenance of how artifacts were acquired. But just like the Roman statues themselves, certificates of provenance are open to forgery.
Such certificates can be faked "as easily as saying hello," says Bajjaly. "I can do it in two seconds."
A popular technique is to cite the object as originating from a collection belonging to an 18th- or 19th-century collector known to have been interested in antiquities. Such references will rarely be cross-checked, and older collections often lack inventories. Thus, collections of individuals who have been dead for hundreds of years keep expanding over time.
Furthermore, even high-end auction houses don't cite the provenance of all objects in their catalogs. Christie's says it hasn't seen a rise in material from Syria, claiming strict internal policies require any item to be thoroughly researched and subject to provenance checks. In addition, catalogs are widely distributed and available online. As a result of such transparency, it is "extremely unlikely that traffickers would use international auctions to sell illicit material," says Christie's communications head Matthew Paton.
But below the elite dealers, hundreds of smaller dealers are only too happy to sell looted antiquities on the black market. Furthermore, antiques are now also readily available online through a growing number of public auction sites -- including mainstream sites such as eBay, where one can buy antiquities such as Roman coins at the click of a button. More specialized items, like cuneiform tablets, can be found on sites such as artemission.com or through auctions on icollector.com. The provenance and legality of such objects are often murky.
Abu Khader predicts lucrative times ahead. He shows off an entire CD full of pictures of loot ready to sell -- at the right price, of course. And he eagerly awaits the future. "After the war, much more will be coming out of Syria than now, because some people are not able to get the things they find across the border," he explains.
If what happened in Iraq is any barometer for Syria, he might be right. It took five years after the U.S.-led invasion for the international market to be flooded with Iraqi antiquities. But given the growing number of sites being looted throughout Syria, it's clear this process is already under way. As Durham's Cunliffe says, "It will be years before we know the full extent of the looting."
JALAL AL-HALABI,DIMITAR DILKOFF/AFP/Getty Images