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World

Looting Antiquities, A Fundamental Part Of ISIS' Revenue Stream

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

As ISIS militants have conquered territory, they have overrun important archaeological sites. Remember, this is the area along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, layered with the debris of several thousand years of civilization. The militants, who are Sunni, have made a public show of blowing up Shiite mosques and shrines. They've also done something less public - looting antiquities for profit.

Michael Danti is a professor of archaeology at Boston University and he's been working with the U.S. State Department to monitor cultural heritage sites in Syria in northern Iraq. He told us about the damage ISIS has done.

MICHAEL DANTI: They're engaging in the looting of archaeological sites. They're engaged in the looting of museum collections and they're also taking cultural property from ethnic and religious minorities. And they use the idea of being conquerors as a way to justify gathering spoils, or ganema (ph) from these populations.

MARTIN: Who are they selling it to?

DANTI: We're not exactly sure. Most of the information that we get are secondhand, third-hand stories. Obviously the middlemen in all of this - the antiquities dealers - are very, very careful and guarded about their business. There seems to be some patterns to the sorts of things that Islamic State and other extremist organizations are looting. They seem to be targeting sites that date to the Classical era, the times when the Greeks and Romans ruled Syria and also the Byzantine period, the period when Syria was essentially the center of Christianity. What we think Islamic State is doing is looting sites for antiquities that they can easily market to middlemen because those antiquities will be hard to trace back to Syria. Antiquities from the Classical era for from these early periods of Christianity, the Byzantine period, can be marketed on the international illegal antiquities scene as essentially coming from anywhere in the Mediterranean region.

MARTIN: Obviously this is part of the world that has a long history with cultural looting and the illegal excavation of antiquities, the sale of those treasures on the black market. How is what's happening now different than other chapters of this kind of theft and destruction?

DANTI: Well, we're used to, unfortunately, accustomed to seeing cultural heritage crimes in Iraq. What's different with Syria is this scale of built heritage in Syria; old city neighborhood in Aleppo, Damascus, Homs and Hamas - neighborhoods that date back 4, 5, 600 years. The number of standing Hellenistic Roman and Byzantine architectural remains there are throughout the country; there's so much that's exposed to collateral or intentional damage through combat. There's damage from vandalism. There are archaeological looters moving in and excavating into the sites. And then there's just the inevitable destruction that's caused by neglect because preservation specialists can't come in and work at the sites and maintain them.

MARTIN: What's been the response from international organizations whose sole mission is to try to crack down on this kind of looting and the sale of these antiquities on the black market? How do you stop it?

DANTI: It's very difficult to stop, obviously until peace and stability are returned to the region. But it's very important for cultural heritage specialists to go in as soon as it is feasible to try to mitigate damage and to preserve these sites. We always run the risk of trying to mitigate damage or preserve a site during the conflict, only to draw attention to it and see it destroyed intentionally, or to try to preserve a site or mitigate damage at that site and have it then destroyed in combat. It's a very difficult decision to try to do things during a conflict.

MARTIN: Michael Danti. He is an archaeologist at Boston University and he tracks the destruction and sale of cultural antiquities in Syria and Iraq for the U.S. State Department. Mr. Danti, thank you so much for talking with us.

DANTI: My pleasure. Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.