Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Syrian Smugglers Enjoy a Free-for-All among Ancient Ruins

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Syrian Smugglers Enjoy a Free-for-All among Ancient Ruins

Article excerpt

Syrian rebel Abu Abd al-Tedmuri grew up in the shadow of Palmyra's ancient ruins. Like many in his family, he illegally excavated and sold archaeological treasures on the side. Amid the chaos of war, this business is chugging along.

Sitting on a thin mattress in the apartment in Turkey he shares with a dozen rebel fighters, Mr. Tedmuri quickly swipes through photos on his smartphone, displaying Islamic gold coins and funerary busts - a few of his treasures. He hid some in his hometown, smuggling the rest to Turkey. Most of them he sold.

The artifacts come from Palmyra's majestic Greco-Roman ruins, the remains of a caravan stop between the 1st and 3rd centuries that is recognized by the UN cultural agency, UNESCO, as a world heritage site. Battles between the regime and rebels, many of whom took shelter in the clusters of palm and date trees skirting the ruins, created the perfect opportunity for plunder.

"After the events in Syria, all the ruins became exposed and no one was protecting them," says the 25-year-old, who worked in an oriental shop in Palmyra before the uprising. "The Army shelled this and other areas on the pretext that rebels were hiding there. The bombing opened up new craters, allowing people easy access to ruins. Some citizens stole ruins seeking a profit, FSA fighters also took stuff to get money for ammunition."

Tedmuri fled, but not before burying the bounty that proved too big to carry and packing away smaller items to sell in Turkey.

'No more fear'Palmyra and the adjacent town of Tedmur used to be major tourist destinations. Residents made a living off of the hotels, shops, and restaurants catering to visitors, while Bedouins and their camels hawked sunrise and sunset rides among the ruins. The evocative structures are scarred, but they escaped the full- scale destruction wrought on many of Syria's other historic sites and cities.

Still, Tedmuri - whose black market nickname is derived from the town name - has no illusions that tourism will return soon, and is unapologetic about his role chipping away at the national heritage.

Palmyran art, which fuses Greco and Roman techniques with Iranian and indigenous influences, is coveted worldwide. An illicit trade in such artifacts existed well before the conflict, but fear of the mukhabarat, intelligence, kept a check on it. Getting caught could result in a 15-year prison sentence.

The Valley of the Tombs, a necropolis just outside the city's ancient walls, is one of the main looting sites. Tedmuri says that even the large limestone slabs with human busts representing the interred were sold off on the black market.

"Now there is no more fear," he says.

Booming businessFrance Desmarais of the Paris-based International Council of Museums (ICOM) says smuggling of cultural objects has "vastly" increased since the start of the conflict, fueled by both professional dealers and amateurs who don't understand the implications. …

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