A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, September 5, 2014

Some Are Raising Doubts About Details in Reports that ISIS is Funding Itself by Looting and Smuggling Antiquities

Just days ago The New York Times became the latest newspaper to report that ISIS is in part funding itself through looting and smuggling antiquities for sale abroad (those it does not blow to bits, at least). In this it followed earlier and similar reports in The Guardian, in National Geographic, London's Sunday Times, and even Buzzfeed. Many of these are based on statements by Iraqi government officials and archaeologists and antiquities experts abroad, and some of the numbers are staggering.

There are some who are raising words of caution, or at least reminding journalists to check their facts. No one denies that there has been an outflow of antiquities due to the wars in Syria and Iraq, or that ISIS is complicit in some of this. But is it as extensive and lucrative as implied? (Nothing of course justifies the looting of even a single artifact by anyone, let alone ISIS' undoubted destruction of priceless sites.)

But there are questions. After he Sunday Times report in July, Paul Barford of Portable Antique Collecting and Heritage Issues that a stele used to illustrate the article had first appeared on the market in 2000, when Saddam Hussein was still in power, and was seen again in 2010, still before the creation of ISIS Conflict Antiquities' Sam Hardy also noted "Mistake after mistake" in the Sunday Times piece, including citing a UNESCO spokesmen for something she subsequently said she had not told the reporter.

In the wake of the recent NYT piece, both Hardy at Conflict Antiquities and Barford have weighed in. I recommend reading these critiques and the links they contain.

The issue is not whether looting is going on, but wheher it is being carried out systematically by ISIS, or whether ISIS is merely taxing the gains of the looters. Both blogs also question some of the numbers cited as to the reported scale of the profits.

No one denies that both Syria and Iraq are losing irreplaceable elements of their heritage, or that ISIS plays a role in this. But i's still important to keep the facts straight.

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