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How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

So why is Isis blowing to pieces the greatest artefacts of ancient history in Syria and Iraq? The archeologist Joanne Farchakh has a unique answer to a unique crime. First, Isis sells the statues, stone faces and frescoes that international dealers demand. It takes the money, hands over the relics – and blows up the temples and buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of what has been looted.

Temple of Bel

“Antiquities from Palmyra are already on sale in London,” the Lebanese-French archaeologist Ms Farchakh says. “There are Syrian and Iraqi objects taken by Isis that are already in Europe. They are no longer still in Turkey where they first went – they left Turkey long ago. This destruction hides the income of Daesh [Isis] and it is selling these things before it is destroying the temples that housed them.

“It has something priceless to sell and then afterwards it destroys the site and the destruction is meant to hide the level of theft. It destroys the evidence. So no one knows what was taken beforehand – nor what was destroyed.”

Ms Farchakh has worked for years among the ancient cities of the Middle East, examining the looted sites of Samarra in Iraq – where “civilisation” supposedly began – after the 2003 US invasion. She has catalogued the vast destruction of the souks and mosques of the Syrian cities of Aleppo and Homs since 2011.

Indeed, this diminutive woman, whose study of the world’s lost antiquities sometimes amounts to an obsession, now describes her job as “a student of the destruction of archeology in war”. Over the past 14 years, she has seen more than enough archeological desecration to fuel her passion for such a depressing career. Politically, Ms Farchakh identifies a particularly clever strain in Isis.

“It has been learning from its mistakes,” she says. “When it started on its archeological destruction in Iraq and Syria, it started with hammers, big machines, destroying everything quickly on film. All the people it was using to do this were dressed as if they were in the time of the Prophet. It blew Nimrud up in one day. But that only gave it 20 seconds of footage. I don’t know how many people’s attention it could capture with that short piece of film. But now it doesn’t even claim any longer that it is destroying a site. It gets human rights groups and the UN to say so. First, people are reported as hearing ‘explosions’. The planet then has the footage that it releases according to its own schedule.”

For this reason, Ms Farchakh says, Isis does not destroy all of Palmyra in one video. “It started with the executions [of Syrian soldiers] in the Roman theatre. Then it showed explosives tied to the Roman pillars. Then it decapitated the retired antiquities director, al-Asaad. Then it blew up the Baal Shamim temple.

“And then everyone shouted, ‘Oh no – what will be next? It will be the Bel temple!’ So that’s what it did. It blew up the Bel temple. So what’s next again? There will be more destruction in Palmyra. It will schedule it differently. Next it will move to the great Roman theatre, then the Agora marketplace [the famous courtyard surrounded by pillars], then the souks – it has a whole city to destroy. And it has decided to give itself time.”

Roman amphitheatre

The longer the destruction lasts, Ms Farchakh believes, the higher go the prices on the international antiquities markets. Isis is in the antiquities business, is her message, and Isis is manipulating the world in its dramas of destruction. “There are no stories on the media without an ‘event’. First, Daesh gave the media blood. Then the media decided not to show any more blood. So it has given them archeology. When it doesn’t get this across, it will go for women, then for children.”

Isis, it seems, is using archeology and history. In any political crisis, a group or dictator can build power on historical evidence. The Shah used the ruins of Persepolis to falsify his family’s history. Saddam Hussein had his initials placed on the bricks of Babylon. “This bunch [Isis] decided to switch this idea,” Ms Farchakh says. “Instead of building its power on archeological objects, it is building its power on the destruction of archeology. It is reversing the usual method. There will not be a ‘before’ in history. So there will not be an ‘after’. They are saying: ‘There is only us’. The people of Palmyra can compare ‘before’ and ‘after’ now, but in 10 years’ time they won’t be able to compare. Because then no one will be left to remember.  They will have no memory.”

As for the Roman gods, Baal had not been worshipped in his temple for 2,000 years. But it had value. Ms Farchakh says: “Every single antiquity [Isis] sells out of Palmyra is priceless. It is taking billions of dollars. The market is there; it will take everything on offer, and it will pay anything for it. Daesh is gaining in every single step it takes, every destruction.”


Filed under: Archaeology, Heritage, Illicit trade & looting, , , , , , , , , , ,

Treasure hunting in Bulgaria

Real-life vampires, giant rock vaginas, ancient sites to rival those of Greece and Rome – Bulgaria’s archaeologists are putting their country on the map of world history, but first they have to stop the mafia stealing its treasures.

The illegal diggers come at night with shovels and sacks, hunting through the places where they know the professionals have been. They’re looking for the tonnes of ancient artefacts that lie hidden in Bulgaria’s soil.

In the past two decades, Bulgarian law enforcement agencies say this plunder has turned into a €30m-a-year industry for local gangs, putting it a close third behind drugs and prostitution. The artefacts – gold Roman coins, ancient Greek silver, Thracian military helmets – wind up with falsified documents in auction houses in Europe and North America, or increasingly with wealthy Arab and Asian collectors.

“You cannot put a value on what is lost because the real loss is information,” says Professor Bozhidar Dimitrov, director of the National Museum of History in Sofia, who has spearheaded efforts to reclaim lost relics. “Even if we recover them, we don’t know where they were originally found, so our understanding of the history is gone.”

Police say there are 300 criminal treasure-hunting gangs in Bulgaria at present, but as many as 50,000 people are thought to be involved in illegal digging in some form. Entire villages have been known to take part in some impoverished corners of Bulgaria.

Belatedly waking up to the scale of the problem, Bulgarian authorities are trying to claw back some of their lost history from around the world.

“The record so far belongs to the Canadians,” said Prof Dimitrov. “A couple of years back, they returned 21,000 artefacts in one go.

A miniature golden chariot with the goddess of Nike, probably dating back to the 3rd Century BC, on display at the National History Museum in Sofia.

“The Italians had so much to return that the minister of culture became worried about the cost of the shipment, so he ordered his entire delegation to carry two extra bags of luggage when they came here. He himself showed up at my office with two huge suitcases full of priceless artefacts.”

Prof Dimitrov’s huge office looks more like a Bond villain’s than that of a historian: wood-panelled walls and a long window staring up at the Vitosha mountains. “It was designed to intimidate guests”, he says between chain-smoked cigarettes – the museum was formerly the residence of Communist dictator Todor Zhivkov, who ruled Bulgaria for 35 years up to 1989.

The Communist legacy is part of the reason why only a quarter of Bulgaria’s treasures are thought to have been discovered so far. Trapped behind the Iron Curtain for half a century, Bulgaria had few tourists, which meant minimal investment in archaeology and preservation.

This was followed by a decade of political confusion and economic crisis after the fall of Communism, when organised crime groups had almost completely free rein.

“In the Nineties, the police could stop only about 10 per cent of the stuff leaving the country,” estimates Prof Dimitrov. “Things have improved a lot. Now they get about 70 to 80 per cent. The police show up all the time with new hordes they have seized from shops in Sofia.”

As if to prove the point, the professor cuts the meeting short to receive the deputy director of the police, who says he has 2,000 artefacts to hand over, discovered in the basement of a local antiques store.

Historical discoveries have been one of the few bright spots for Bulgaria’s beleaguered economy in recent years, helping to convince the authorities of the need to protect their heritage.

Nikolay Ovcharov

Archaeologist Nikolay Ovcharov – nicknamed “Bulgaria’s Indiana Jones” – has just started the final excavations at Perperikon, a 7,000-year-old sacred site deep in the Rhodope mountains whose highlight is a walk-in vagina.

First discovered in the 1980s when ethnographers interviewed local villagers, Perperikon was in ancient times as famous as the oracle at Delphi in Greece, a place of wild bacchanalian rituals to the god Dionysus, and, according to legend, the birthplace of the Greek prophet Orpheus, which counted Alexander the Great among its visitors.

“It rivals Machu Picchu,” says Prof Ovcharov. “Bulgarian archaeology has enormous potential. It can change the way people think about this country. It can give us national pride as well as bringing in a lot of wealth.”

One of the most extraordinary aspects of Perperikon is a nearby fertility shrine – a 10-metre vulva carved in the rock, leading into a womb-like cave. Around midday at the right time of year, a phallus-shaped ray of sunlight reaches an altar deep in the cave.

“It felt very unusual standing in a vagina,” says Prof Ovcharov, remembering the moment he first saw the cave in 2002. “It was so unique. It still makes my hair stand on end.”


The big surprise for Bulgaria’s historians has been the global interest in its vampires.

A grave unearthed in the Black Sea resort of Sozopol last year turned up a skeleton with an iron stake through its rib cage. It belonged to a famous 14th-century pirate named Kirov, whose job was to attack the ships of illegal Venetian traders. He was later made governor of the town.

Locals believed the souls of evil men did not ascend to heaven and instead left their graves at night to drink the blood of the living. Although Kirov was given an aristocrat’s burial, locals evidently thought him a nasty piece of work, and snuck in after the funeral to drive a stake through the body in order to keep his soul from escaping. They pulled out his teeth, too, just to be safe.

The discovery reached the press almost by accident. Prof Dimitrov was sneaking a cigarette outside Sozopol’s town hall just after the grave was found and some journalists came up to tease him about his heavy smoking. He only mentioned the vampire to deflect attention.

“Suddenly, it became a huge international sensation,” he says at his office, lighting another cigarette. “Vampires are very common here – we’ve already found more than a hundred – so we hadn’t thought to publicise it. I didn’t know there was a vampire movie with Brad Pitt and that they were so popular. It was featured in over 1,200 publications. That’s more than covered the fall of our Communist dictator.”

The vampire has proved a great pull for tourists, and drawn further attention to the astounding discoveries being made in Sozopol.

The skeleton of a man at Sozopol in Bulgaria, with an iron stake driven through his chest.

In 2010, a marble box containing a tooth and bits of skull were found on an adjacent island which are said to be relics of St John the Baptist. Foreign experts dated them to the first century AD and said the DNA belonged to a Middle Eastern man, making the claims plausible enough to attract coach-loads of pilgrims.

Another site in the town has uncovered the ruins of Roman baths alongside a Greek temple to the God Poseidon and a medieval church – a rare chance to see the evolution of worship in a single spot.

This is not so surprising for Bulgaria, a country whose strategic location at the crossroads of Europe and Asia has made it one of the world’s most sought-after territories throughout the ages. Greeks, Romans, Thracians, Byzantines and Ottomans all fought countless wars to gain control of its fertile lands – a bitter irony given the controversial emigration of young Bulgarians over the past two decades.

Not all are happy with the government’s efforts to control the trade in historical artefacts, however. Bulgaria’s small shopkeepers complain about restrictions on selling any pre-twentieth century objects.

“The police can shut me down for having just one old coin,” says Constantine Georgiev, owner of a small bric-a-brac store in Sofia. “But this just means the trade in antiques is controlled by around 10 very rich guys with political connections. No one goes after the big mafia bosses because they can afford the bribes.”

Efforts to increase sentences for illicit smugglers have started to change attitudes towards a crime that was not taken too seriously in the past.

An archaeologist cleaning a skeleton during archaeological excavations in the Black Sea town of Sozopol last year

“Many used to see it as a fun adventure,” says Prof Dimitrov. “The men dig while the women do a barbecue. You had police and even priests taking part.”

Indeed, a 41-year-old priest from the northern city of Vratsa was busted in 2010 after conducting over 1,000 illegal sales of ancient coins and jewellery over the internet.

But despite these efforts, experts say that widespread corruption and the high demand from overseas means Bulgaria’s treasures will continue to disappear into private collections, while authorities face a relentless challenge trying to protect over 40,000 known archaeological sites across the country.

“We lobbied for an amnesty a few years back so that private owners could declare what they had on the condition it was not sold or exported. That was one of the first laws that was overturned when GERB [a right-wing Bulgarian political party] took power in 2009,” says Prof Ovcharov. “Rich collectors are a powerful lobby.”

From independent.

Filed under: Archaeology, Illicit trade & looting, , , , , , , , , ,


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