Extreme Poverty, Terrorism and Stolen Antiquities

by Letters 4 the Damned

“This is the heritage of the world. We have to protect it!” exclaims Dr. Zahi Hawass, Egypt’s former Minister of Antiquities. Following the Arab Spring Revolution former protected historic sites have been commonly looted for their artifacts.  Vice correspondent Giana Toboni visited with two looters nearby Cairo, Egypt to ask what their motivation is for stealing these antiquities.

Mohammed and Ahmed explain, “Because we need money…The revolution has impacted everyone. Things are more expensive now and there are no jobs.” When asked if they felt guilt about the looting they replied, “Yes, I feel like I am stealing from my country and selling it. But I need to feed my kids.”

Looting of artifacts is unfortunately common in and around Egypt due to the unrest and extensive poverty. Walaa Hussein of Al-Monitor describes the looting as aggressive and expressed concern that the reason for this aggression may be due to the current economic environment and conflict.

“The attacks are aggressive, as if some people are taking revenge against the state for their extreme poverty and marginalization by looting ancient monuments.”

17 percent of Egypt’s population was food insecure in 2011 and malnutrition rates in 2011 included 31 percent of children under five years old according to the World Health Organization. Poverty in Egypt is highest in rural areas which are home to over half of the population, 80 percent of which live in poverty.

The violence and conflict in Egypt following the Arab Spring Revolution in 2011 has strongly decreased tourism in the region and has made the economy worse. What was once a major source of income for many in the area is now gone.

Economist Professor Samer Atallah explains that the unrest directly affected the economy bringing it to as he describes a halt. “Consumers stopped consuming. Investors actually pulled their money out of the economy, and there was a deep recession.”

Atallah goes on to explain that the biggest problem is unemployment, which has the most significant impact on the younger population. This lack of opportunity creates an incentive for the younger population to engage in illegal activity and extremist groups have exploited this compounding the problem.

Terrorist groups like the Islamic State have benefited greatly from these stolen artifacts and use the profits to purchase weaponry, which fuels the instability further. The groups version of Islam permits them to purchase “and sell ghanima, or war spoils.”  During 2014, looting was the Islamic State’s second largest source of financing preceded only by oil.

An Iraqi intelligence official reported to The Guardian that artifacts stolen and sold in the region of al-Nubak, east of Damascus, were responsible for a total of $36 million of the Islamic State’s income. The terrorist group is known for hiring locals to steal artifacts for which they are provided compensation in return. Michael Danti of the Syrian Heritage Initiative states “Next to oil, looting is the best paying sector working for ISIS as a civilian in Raqqa”.

The excavation of these artifacts provides employment for some but also acts as a source of income for individuals whose homes may lie near or on sites where artifacts can be found. The illegal excavations became a major eyesore after the Arab Spring Revolution and have resulted in a pockmarked bird’s eye of view of areas like Dahshur.

Toboni spoke with a stolen antiquities dealer who explained how the profits from this highly lucrative trade are divided. Using an example of a small statue that dates back to 1,000 years before Jesus’s birth, which is approximated by historians to be around 4 BC, the dealer explained the total sale would be between $33,000 and $37,000.

The first dealer would receive $8,000 to $9,000 and the diggers, who can spend up to a year looking for an artifact, would receive approximately $3,000 to $4,000 off the sale. The main dealer from Cairo can take up to $50,000 dependent on the items value. However, the stolen antiquities dealer explained he is unaware how much an American purchaser pays for these items.

The majority of the demand for these items comes from America and typically involves several different countries where antiquities can be found including Iraq and Syria as well as Egypt.

Syria has been one of the hardest hit countries by this lucrative trade. Five of the country’s six UNESCO world heritage sites have been extensively harmed as a result of the unstable climate.

More than 200,000 people have died in Syria since 2011. According to a study by the Syrian Centre for Policy Research 80 percent of Syrians fell into poverty and more than $200 billion in economic damages have occurred since the beginning of the Syrian war in 2010.

The UN backed report states “as huge swatches of the community have lost the opportunity to work and earn an income, just over 4 in 5 Syrians now live in poverty, as it has become a country of poor people, 30% of the population have descended into abject poverty where households struggle to meet the basic food needs to sustain bare life.”

This problem of extreme poverty and lack of opportunity provides an incentive for those who are struggling  to engage in the informal market. Antiquities happen to be one of the most profitable and accessible in the region.

Boston University archaeology professor Michael Danti told NBC news, “Syria is experiencing looting on an industrial scale” in ISIS-controlled territory. “They are really looting sites into oblivion…twenty percent of the country’s archaeological sites have been looted or destroyed to some extent.” In March of 2015, looting and destruction by ISIS reached into neighboring areas of Iraq including the city of Mosul and the 3,000 year old city of Nimrud.

The taking of the city of Palmyra in Syria by concerned scholars for some time. Palmyra is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a major archaeological site from the ancient world. The site is described by U.N. groups as having “stood at the crossroads of several civilizations.” Despite the concern and attempts by scholars to preserve the area the city was taken by ISIS in May of 2015.

However, the United States can take steps that will help control the amount of looting that is occurring in the region. Europe and Switzerland have both enacted bans on the importation of stolen Syrian artifacts whereas legislation in the U.S. is still needed. Policy efforts including increasing foreign aid can help improve the economic stability of the area thus providing employment opportunities to those who might otherwise turn to looting.

There are still many artifacts left to protect and many areas that can benefit from the alleviation of poverty.

-Christopher Kolezynski

Vice News HBO, Season 3 Episode 8 – Egyptian Tomb Raiders and Rent a White Guy, http://www.hbo.com/vice/episodes/03/30-egyptian-tomb-raiders-and-rent-a-white-guy/index.html 

The Guardianhttp://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/mar/12/syrias-war-80-in-poverty-life-expectancy-cut-by-20-years-200bn-lost

NBC News, http://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/isis-terror/isis-looting-destroying-ancient-syrian-sites-industrial-scale-n359461

CNN, http://www.cnn.com/2015/05/21/middleeast/isis-syria-iraq/

Al-Monitor, http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2014/02/riots-security-chaos-egypt-threaten-museums-antiquities.html#

UN News Centrehttp://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=44961#.VW4gBGRVhHw

Daily News Egypthttp://www.dailynewsegypt.com/2013/06/03/while-the-world-succeeds-in-battling-poverty-egypt-fails/

Mother Joneshttp://www.motherjones.com/politics/2015/02/how-isis-cashes-illegal-antiquities-trade

Wall Street Journal, http://www.wsj.com/articles/syrian-monuments-men-race-to-protect-antiquities-as-looting-bankrolls-terror-1423615241

Live Science, http://www.livescience.com/42976-when-was-jesus-born.html