3:42pm

Tue May 27, 2014
Parallels

Smugglers Thrive On Syria's Chaos, Looting Cultural Treasures

Originally published on Tue June 10, 2014 9:53 am

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.

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.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Rights groups say at least 160,000 people have been killed in Syria and nearly 3 million have fled. Archaeologists and historians say the war has also ravaged the country's heritage. NPR'S Alice Fordham reports that the U.N. is trying to stop an epidemic of looting and smuggling of priceless antiquities.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: 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 antique stores here say they can get you anything.

REDA ISMAIL: Everything that have traditions and everything found in old houses.

FORDHAM: Reda Ismail runs a store. 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. The kind of antique he used to make a profit on, along with chests and chairs. But now the market's flooded. Desperate families sell their treasures or militias steal them.

ISMAIL: Before the war, look, 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 - so maybe it's like $200 or $300.

FORDHAM: Now there's a new smuggling trend. Antiquities, millennial old, are seeping on to the market. Assaad Seif, of Lebanon's Antiquities Directorate, says they're catching a couple of shipments a month.

ASSAAD SEIF: Smuggling of antiquities from Syria, it's not a new thing. It is a very old thing. But, because of the war it increased.

FORDHAM: Seif says Lebanese authorities have seized shipments looted from the 1st century Roman settlement 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.

SEIF: 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.

FORDHAM: The U.N.'s cultural arm, UNESCO, has repeatedly petitioned the 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. Paris-based Nada Hassan from UNESCO says she's often asked why she cares about such things when people are dying.

NADA HASSAN: Our answer is always that culture - cultural heritage are part of a 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.

FORDHAM: Hassan says armed rebels, starving civilians, organized criminals are all stealing from everything. Roman ruins, mosques, centuries-old churches - nothing spared. But the country needs it now more than ever.

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

FORDHAM: She says someday the war will end. Syrians will want to build a future. And they'll need reminders of their shared past to do it. Alice Fordham, NPR News, Beirut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.