Conflict Zones

Smugglers Thrive On Syria's Chaos, Looting Cultural Treasures

A Syrian policeman patrols the ancient oasis city of Palmyra in March. Many Syrian antiquities have been looted and smuggled out of the country during the past three years of civil war. i i

A Syrian policeman patrols the ancient oasis city of Palmyra in March. Many Syrian antiquities have been looted and smuggled out of the country during the past three years of civil war. Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images
A Syrian policeman patrols the ancient oasis city of Palmyra in March. Many Syrian antiquities have been looted and smuggled out of the country during the past three years of civil war.

A Syrian policeman patrols the ancient oasis city of Palmyra in March. Many Syrian antiquities have been looted and smuggled out of the country during the past three years of civil war.

Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images

Smuggling is a way of life in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, just over the border from Syria. Driving along it, you see pale smugglers' trails snaking through mountain passes, and the guys who run touristy little antiques stores here say they can get you anything.

"Everything that have traditions and everything found in old houses," says Reda Ismail, who runs one of the many stores in the valley. Dealers say most things here are smuggled from Syria, and Ismail thinks these days it's more prevalent.

He drums out a tune on a wooden coffee grinder, opens creaking chests, pulls out the drawers of dressers inlaid with mother-of-pearl — the kind of antiques he used to turn a profit on. But now the market's flooded. Desperate Syrian families sell their treasures, or militias steal them.

"Before the war, look," he says, "when people saw this work, they maybe pay for this chest maybe $1,000. But now because all the quantity of this stuff in Lebanon ... maybe it's like $200 or $300."

The war in Syria has had a terrible human cost. Rights groups say at least 160,000 people have been killed and nearly 3 million have fled the country. Archaeologists and historians say the country's rich heritage is being ravaged as well.

Now there's a new smuggling trend. Antiquities are seeping onto the market, looted from ancient sites and smuggled over the border. Assaad Seif, of Lebanon's Antiquities Directorate, says they're catching shipments about twice a month.

"Smuggling of antiquities from Syria [is] not a new thing," he says. "It is a very old thing. But because of the war, it increased."

Seif says Lebanese authorities have seized shipments looted from the 1st century Roman settlement of Apameia, outside the Syrian city of Homs. They retrieved 24 statues taken from the magnificent ancient city of Palmyra. They caught someone at the airport with stones from Roman arches hidden in plaster statues.

"Of course when you have war, you have less control; and when you have less control, people try to do whatever they can in order to get easy money," he says.

Syrian citizens ride their bicycles in Palmyra in March. Authorities in Lebanon say they have seized many looted items from Syria, including 24 statues from Palmyra. i i

Syrian citizens ride their bicycles in Palmyra in March. Authorities in Lebanon say they have seized many looted items from Syria, including 24 statues from Palmyra. Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images
Syrian citizens ride their bicycles in Palmyra in March. Authorities in Lebanon say they have seized many looted items from Syria, including 24 statues from Palmyra.

Syrian citizens ride their bicycles in Palmyra in March. Authorities in Lebanon say they have seized many looted items from Syria, including 24 statues from Palmyra.

Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images

The United Nations' cultural arm, UNESCO, has repeatedly petitioned the U.N. Security Council to outlaw the sale of Syrian antiquities. A joint U.N. statement led by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in March warned that "the illicit trafficking of cultural objects has reached unprecedented levels," but the Security Council members can't agree on a resolution.

Nada Hassan from UNESCO says she's often asked why she cares about such things when so many are dying. She says her answer "is always that culture, cultural heritage are part of humanitarian relief. This is about the environment of people, first of all — the habitat of the Syrian people — and it's about their identity, their past, what defines them."

Hassan says armed rebels, starving civilians and organized criminals are all stealing. Roman ruins, mosques, centuries-old churches — nothing is spared. But the country needs those tangible fragments of history now more than ever.

"The Syrian heritage, and heritage in general, holds so many influences. ... In this case ... where a country is fragmented, heritage will have a very important unifying role," she says.

She says some day the war will end. Syrians will want to build a future — and they'll need reminders of their shared past to do it.

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