Friday, February 13, 2015


from the Wall St. Journal (Feb. 11, 2015):

This is a fabulous news article: for the full story, contact the Wall St. Journal!

On the Turkey/Syria border: in a hotel basement on the Turkish side of this combat scarred frontier, a group of unlikely warriors is training to fight on a little-known front of Syria's civil war: the battle for the country's cultural heritage. The recruits aren't grizzled fighters but graying academics, more at home on an archaeological dig than a battlefield. For months, they have journeyed across war-torn regions of Syria, braving shelling, smugglers and the jihadists of Islamic State. Their mission: to save ancient artifacts and imperiled archaeological sites from profiteers, desperate civilians and fundamentalists who have plundered Syria's rich artistic heritage to fund their war effort.

Art historians and intelligence officials say that antiquities smuggling by Islamic State has exploded in recent months, aggravating the pillaging by government forces and opposition factions. Looting, often with bulldozers, is now the militant group's second largest course of finance after oil, Western intelligence officials say.

"What started as opportunistic theft by some has turned into organized transnational business that is helping fund terror," said Michael Danti, an archaeologist at Boston University who is advising the U.S. State Dept. on how to tackle the problem

In sessions at this secret location, the loose-knit band of academics is being trained how to fight back. They are instructed on how to get to key sits and document both what is there and what is already missing. Another skill: how to hide precious objects that maybe be at risk of looting and record the GPS locations so they can be retrieved at a later date. The group also uses disguises: posing as antiques dealers to take photographs of looted artifacts....

In neighboring Iraq, Islamic State is also looting and destroying ancient sites on an alarming scale, according to satellite imagery, anthropologists and government officials. In recent days, the militants destroyed a large portion of the ancient city wall at Nineveh in Iraq which dates back 27i00 years and was once the capitol of the Assyrian Empire. ...

In Islamic State controlled territory around Mesopotamian city of Mari, a longtime trade hub ... more than 1,300 excavation pits have been dug in the past few months,...

Syria's monuments men, a group of academics, archaeologists and volunteers are seeking to halt the plunder at its source. Formed in 2012 by the Damascus University trained archaeologist and another Syrian archaeologist colleague, the group started informally cataloging damage to sites in battle scarred Idib and Aleppo provinces. The founders enlisted Syrian colleagues and friends from universities, museums and government directorates and later, European and American specialists joined as advisers..... The group is now a 200 strong network stretching across rebel-held Syria. ...
Just getting to the training camp was a challenge. At the border, the group was trapped between shellfire and warring Syrian factions and the rotating searchlights of Turkey's border guards. Dressed in suits, they sheltered face down in a muddy ditch for six hours before it was safe to be smuggled across the frontier into Turkey. ...

The Damascus trained archaeologist said lack of resources and the dangerous nature of their work has limits what they can achieve on the ground. "This isn't just about history, It's about our future," he said. "Saving our heritage is the only thing that can help us rebuild an inclusive SyriaThi after the war."

On Line: See more photos and a video on efforts to protect Syrian's cultural sites at


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