”The cradle of our civilization is for sale”

avErik Wiman, Nour Saeed

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Smugglarna skickar fotografier på antikviteterna de erbjuder att sälja. Bilderna visar dussintals antikviteter, allt från tusenåriga guldmynt till antika statyetter, ottomanska svärd samt smycken och krukor.

The antiques we bid on varied in price from 3,000 to 20,000 USD.

This is cheap in comparison to many other goods that are available on the black market.

“The entire cradle of civilization is for sale and its buyers are sponsoring ISIS’ warfare,” says professor and archeologist Michael Danti from Boston


In the middle of May, ISIS stormed the historical city of Palmyra and still has the city under its control. Following advances this past spring, the group now controls half of Syria, their caliphate corresponding to Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Ireland combined.

“War is a human disaster, first and foremost – but what is happening now also means the loss of irreplaceable historical treasures,” says Danti.

Danti is part of a group of archeologists who have tried to save as many historical places as possible since the start of the civil war in Syria over four years ago.

“Our work involves documenting the damages and raising awareness of this issue on a global level. We are also trying to hide away as many items as possible to return when the war is over.”

”Loss of information”

We contacted Danti at the beginning of our investigation and asked him to look at the pictures we had received from the smugglers.

“I have gone through them all and what I see is antiques from different time periods from the area around Euphrates Valley. The oldest items are from the Bronze Age and they continue up to the early Islamic Era.”

How would you assess the value of these goods?

“I would say that these antiques are in the lower price range, with the exception of a few items in the middle price range.

“However, from my point of view, it is not the economic value that is important, but rather the loss of information. As soon as these items are taken from their original locations, they lose a lot of their archeological value that we use to understand past cultures.”

Looted from archeological sites

Danti’s assessment is that the items in our pictures have recently been looted from their original archeological sites.

“A lot of the information points to this – a few pictures show the items still have dirt on them, and I see that there is damage from picks and shovels, which reveals that these items have not been dug up by archeologists, but rather by looters.”

How does smuggling work?

“Just as your investigation shows, a lot of this trade is done through the internet.

We can see how the smugglers search for prospective buyers, mostly in the USA and Europe. They say that they want to ship the items to Turkey, which also fits into the pattern we recognize. We can see how these goods pass through ISIS territory to southern Turkey where we often lose the trail.”

How would you categorise these smugglers?

“Without a doubt, you are dealing with people involved in organised Turkish crime as well as the most dangerous Islamist groups operating in northern and eastern Syria. I would not recommend that anyone meet these people. “