Syria's struggle to save the past

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Story highlights

  • Organized crime gangs are likely involved in theft and smuggling of ancient artifacts
  • Syrian archaeologist uses a network of volunteers to keep tabs on what's been stolen in Syria
  • "A human life doesn't have much value without culture to go with it," says one museum director

Berlin (CNN)It all began in his pizzeria in Spain. That's where Syrian archaeologist Isber Sabrine was able to scrape together enough money to launch his group, Heritage for Peace.

A 29-year-old archaeologist from a village near the Mediterranean coast in western Syria, Sabrine is using modern technology to trace and document the looting and destruction of his country's ancient heritage.
Working from Berlin, he runs a network in Syria of around 150 volunteers -- archaeologists, architects, students and simply concerned citizens -- who often pose as antiquities buyers to see what has been stolen in the course of Syria's now more than four-year uprising. He communicates with them via Skype when the Internet in Syria is working, which isn't often.
    "They go to the locals and they say look, we are interested. They cannot buy, but at least they make photos and they send us photos," says Sabrine. "Like this we have a list of looted materials from Syria."
    That list is shared with law enforcement, auction houses and collectors. CNN asked if we could publish some of those photographs -- we saw statues, mosaics and coins -- but Sabrine declined for fear the photos might expose the volunteers.
    After years of chaos, the market for stolen antiquities is flooded, and dealers are holding back some of their most valuable items. "We know that the most important objects don't go to market now," says Sabrine. "The big dealers are waiting, maybe two, three or four years, and then when the opportunity is right, they will sell."
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    The culprits

    Who is doing all the looting? Sabrine and others I've spoken with say it's unlikely ISIS has the time or the inclination to do the actually digging. Rather, it's often gangs, many Turkish, who do the dirty work. They assemble teams, sometimes including people with experience in archaeology, and use heavy equipment to retrieve what's of value, often destroying other remains in the process.
    With help from Syrian and international archaeologists and preservation experts, Sabrine drew up a "no-strike" list of important historical sites in the northern city of Aleppo. His group shared the list with regime and opposition forces in the hope that those sites would be spared. Unfortunately, they weren't -- and many of Aleppo's iconic sites, such as its ancient citadel, covered market and Great Mosque, have been damaged or destroyed.
    Heritage for Peace has walked a fine line between the Syrian regime and the opposition, Sabrine says, but has no contact with ISIS, which has shown time and again its contempt for all things, including Syria's and Iraq's ancient pasts, which don't conform with its narrow vision of reality.
    The work of Heritage for Peace is made all the more difficult due to the lack of funding. The group is made up of volunteers, who receive training from international archaeologists and preservation expects who share their knowledge without compensation. UNESCO, the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, is obliged to work through governmental bodies, so given that large areas of Syria aren't under government control, there is little UNESCO can do to help.

    No resources for lifeless stones

    At a time when Syria and Iraq are wracked by war, with hundreds of thousands dead, many more wounded, and millions made homeless and driven into exile, it's difficult to justify putting resources and time into preserving ancient, lifeless stones.
    Why should we care about the crumbling, dusty leftovers from the distant past? I asked Markus Hilgert, an Assyriologist and director of Berlin's Pergamon Museum, an important repository for artifacts from the Fertile Crescent.
    "A human life doesn't have much value without culture to go with it," he says. "Culture is what distinguishes human life from an insect."
    Beyond that, he points out, in times of deep sectarian antagonism and violence in Syria and Iraq, the past could come in handy in the future. "If we are thinking about trying to rebuild these societies, what are the unifying elements, what are the cultural constants that everyone can possibly agree on?" Hilgert asks. "The pre-Islamic history is one of those points of reference," he says.
    The Pergamon Museum is also trying to get a handle on the sudden upsurge in the illegal antiquities trade.
    "We're trying to develop methods to uncover, to discover, to clear up this dark field of crime, of organized crime, to understand the networks, to understand how people interact, to understand how much money is made, to understand how the objects come from Iraq and Syria to Germany," says Hilgert.

    High demand

    The trade in stolen artifacts "starts with political instability, with economic difficulties, with a legal framework in the source countries that is not apt at preventing crime in that area," he says. But fundamentally, it exists because there is a demand for such items.
    "We must not forget that there would be no pillaging, there would be less incentives for pillaging archaeological sites, if there were no market. The market is the incentive. The people buying the stuff are creating the incentive to loot archaeological sites and museums."
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    Indeed, ISIS has posted a variety of videos from Iraq and Syria boasting of its destruction of sites that date back to the second millennium B.C. and has shown its supporters smashing statues in the Mosul Museum. But smaller items, ones that are easier to transport but have a huge value, are being smuggled out of the areas the group controls.
    Like Sabrine, Hilgert says much of the smuggling is being done by criminal gangs that already have the contacts, infrastructure and resources for the illicit trade in drugs, weapons and humans, as well as money laundering. In some cases, he adds, these gangs will organize digging and looting teams on commission from dealers or wealthy collectors in the West or the Gulf.
    Both Sabrine and Hilgert are hesitant to put a value on the illegal trade in antiquities. Reports on ISIS' sources of revenue suggest the antiquities trade is its second most important moneymaker after the oil business, but no hard, reliable data exist.
    And of course it's pointless trying to put a monetary value on items that are completely irreplaceable. Once lost -- whether through theft, violence or wanton vandalism -- these antiquities are gone. Forever.