Via Satellite, Tracking The Plunder Of Middle East Cultural History : Parallels ISIS militants now control the long-running black market in stolen artifacts. Experts are tracking damage to heritage sites in Iraq and Syria by satellite and doing what little they can to stop it.
NPR logo

Via Satellite, Tracking The Plunder Of Middle East Cultural History

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Via Satellite, Tracking The Plunder Of Middle East Cultural History

Via Satellite, Tracking The Plunder Of Middle East Cultural History

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


There are reports that the self-proclaimed Islamic State has been looting, smashing and bulldozing antiquities in areas it controls in Iraq and Syria - in the 3,000-year-old city of Nimrud in northern Iraq, in the 2000-year-old city of Hatra, artifacts in the Mosul Museum. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon calls the destruction a war crime. In a moment, an Iraqi archaeologist who wants the U.S. to help protect these sites. First, NPR's Deborah Amos reports on the difficulty of tracking such looting in Syria.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: I'm in southern Turkey, near the Syrian border, the crossroads for an extensive smuggling operation of ancient artifacts. Those transactions are, in secret, often conducted in towns along this border. But way overhead, there are eyes watching, satellites scanning heritage sites sending alarming imagery back to Washington, D.C.

SUSAN WOLFINBARGER: I knew that there was a lot of looting and that there were reports that it was pretty massive, but this was just beyond the scale of anything we'd seen.

AMOS: Analyst Susan Wolfinbarger can see the ransacking on her computer. She's tracking heritage destruction, a satellite project at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. As ISIS fighters overrun an area, they pillage whatever they can, she says. She's analyzed hundreds of images - this one, a world-famous site on Syria's border with Iraq, Dura Europos, a walled city founded in 330 B.C.

WOLFINBARGER: The looting is so extensive that - so people are digging pits into the ground.

AMOS: Are all those little holes?

WOLFINBARGER: Yes. So these holes are so close together that we actually couldn't tell one apart from the other.

AMOS: The damage is staggering, says Brian Daniels. He's the director of research at the University of Pennsylvania's Cultural Heritage Center. Dura Europos, he says, was a treasure - an intact example of an early Roman town.

BRIAN DANIELS: It's almost like a snapshot in time because it has the oldest synagogue known in the world, and it also has one of the oldest house churches known in the world. I mean, the level of looting and devastation that's happened to Dura Europos is heartbreaking.

AMOS: The looting accelerated in 2014, just as ISIS took over the area in eastern Syria.

DANIELS: Seventy-six percent of the site has now been destroyed by looting. And this is an immense and very tragic loss. It was a horrible thing to see.

AMOS: To try to understand the loss, I went to an archaeological museum in southern Turkey. It's all part of the same historical neighborhood going back 3,000 years. You can see exactly what the looters are after - a lot of small objects. There are tablets, cooking utensils, jewelry, figurines. All of these are worth thousands of dollars on the illegal market.


AMOS: In Syria, that illegal market started as soon as the war began. Regime soldiers and rebels were looting when ISIS arrived, says Syrian archaeologist Amr al-Azm. He's now a U.S.-based academic.

AMR AL-AZM: ISIS came to a pre-existing situation. What they then did was start to levy a tax on the revenue being raised by the sale of these looted antiquities.

AMOS: The tax brought windfall profits, says Azm and U.S. officials. In recent months, ISIS has expanded its role.

AL-AZM: They start to engage their own people in the digging, in the retrieval of these looted items and also in the sale, so they start to be involved at every level of the operation. And they started to do it for themselves.

AMOS: Azm is part of an international project to save heritage sites. He organizes volunteers in Syria. They risk their lives posing as buyers to collect photographs of stolen treasures. They report ISIS sends pictures directly through cell phones and the web to buyers in the region and Europe.


AMOS: Last month, ISIS shocked the world with this video. It showed militants smashing ancient statues at the Mosul Museum in Iraq. For archaeologists, antiquities experts, the difficult question - is it better to sell or to smash? Dr. Assad Seif is an archaeologist in Lebanon's Antiquities Department.

ASSAD SEIF: Sometimes between two evils, you choose the less. And it's so weird that you can - this action can push you to think that - yeah, yeah, it's better to sell them than to destroy them. But I don't like to go there.

AMOS: ISIS has created a multimillion dollar antiquities business, the cultural loss increasing in pace as the war in Syria begins its fifth year. Deborah Amos, NPR News.

Copyright © 2015 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.