“I’ve taken this out so many times,” said Hani, as he deftly unzips a black laptop case. From two side pockets the Syrian remove a statue, some beads and an assortment of stones and arrange them for viewing.
Nestled in the bag is an intricately carved 4,000-year-old limestone tablet covered in hieroglyphics. The markings record the success of two Mesopotamian kings, and were carved a stone’s throw from Babylon, the cradle of civilisation.
An inspection of the tablet, gingerly touching the rough stone, is paused as a fresh break becomes evident – a crack splitting the plaque in two. Sheepishly, Hani and his colleague admit that they broke it last year. The handle of the laptop case wasn’t strong enough, they explain, and had sent thousands of years of history – an object of huge value – crashing to the floor.
The meeting with the pair occurs on the outskirts of Gaziantep, the main hub on the Turkish-Syrian border for antiquity dealing. With a grey sky overhead and spots of rain falling, we were picked up from a side street lined with half-built apartment blocks and a few drab shops.
A cluster of children’s shoes lined the front door of the apartment in which the meeting took place, and the muffled shrieks of kids playing next door punctuated the conversation. Sweet Syrian tea was offered; the room was sparsely furnished with thin foam mattresses and a tired chest of drawers full of treasure.
Unlike the vast majority of traders, these men are Syrian, not Turkish, and eager to show their wares to a foreigner. Turkish buyers are their staple, the two say, but they don’t pay top prices, and so sales were down.
The men believe that I am there merely to look at the goods, and would travel to London later that week to report back to my “boss”.
No specifics are exchanged although it is very clear that I’m no expert archaeologist. The cover story was assumed as it had been made clear that the two would not show their wares to a journalist; but my contact was keen that I expose what is being stolen from his country.
As Syria’s violent war drags on, such trade is a major source of income for many of the armed groups from Islamic State (Isis) to Syrian opposition groups, and is nothing new – al-Qaeda and the Taliban were well-known contributors to the illicit art trade.
Now Syria and Iraq are being looted on an unprecedented scale – in tandem with the destruction of cultural history which has been shown in Isis videos from the Iraqi towns of Mosul and Nimrud.
A mixture of dedicated diggers and hopeful amateurs is unearthing all sorts of priceless gems; the looters are desperate for an income and keen to sell what they can, usually through Beirut or, increasingly, on the Turkish border.
Timeline: The emergence of Isis
Timeline: The emergence of Isis
Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (pictured here) forms an al-Qaeda splinter group in Iraq, al-Qa’eda in Iraq. Its brutality from the beginning alienates Iraqis and many al-Qaeda leaders.
Al-Zarqawi is killed in a U.S. strike. Al-Zarqawi’s successor, Abu Ayyub al-Masri, announces the creation of the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI).
Still al-Qaeda-linked ISI claims responsibility for suicide bombings that killed 155 in Baghdad, as well as attacks in August and October killing 240, as President Obama announces troop withdrawal from Iraq in March.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi becomes head of ISI, at lowest ebb of Islamist militancy in Iraq, which sees last U.S. combat brigade depart.
In Syria, protests (pictured here starting in Daree) have morphed into what president Assad labelled a “real war” with emergence of a coalition of forces opposed to Assad’s regime. Syria group Jabhat al-Nusra are among rebel groups who refuse to join, denouncing it as a “conspiracy”. Bombings targeting Shia areas, killing more than 500 people, spark fears of new sectarian conflict. Sunni Muslims stage protests across country against what they see as increasingly marginalisation by Shia-led government.
Al-Baghdadi renames ISI as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or Isis, as the group absorbs Syrian al-Nusra, gaining a foothold in Syria. In response, al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri (Bin Laden’s successor) concerned about Isis’ expansion orders that Isis be dissolved and ISI operations should be confined to Iraq. This order is rejected by al-Baghdadi.
7/40 2014 - January
Isis fighters capture the Iraqi cities of Fallujah and Ramadi, giving them base to launch slew of attacks further south.
8/40 2014 - June
Isis declares itself the Caliphate, calling itself Islamic State (IS). The group captures Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city; Tal Afar, just 93 miles from Syrian border; and the central Iraqi city of Tikrit. These advances sent shockwaves around the world.
9/40 2014 - June
Around the same time Isis releases a video calling for western Muslims to join the Caliphate and fight, prompting new evaluations of extremists groups social media understanding.
10/40 2014 - June
Isis take Baiji oil fields in Iraq - giving them access to huge amounts of possible revenue.
11/40 2014 - August
James Foley is executed by the group as concerns grow for second American prisoner, fellow reporter Steven Sotloff.
12/40 2014 - August
Obama authorises U.S. airstrikes in Iraq, helping to stall Isis’ along with action by Kurdish forces following the deaths of hundreds of Yazidi people on Mount Sinjar.
13/40 2014 - September
Isis release video showing Steven Sotloff’s murder prompting Western speculation his executioner is same man who killed Mr Foley.
14/40 2014 - September
Obama tells us that America “will hunt down terrorists who threaten our country”
15/40 2014 - September
Isis release a video appearing to show David Haines, who was captured by militants in Syria in 2013, wearing an orange jumpsuit and kneeling in the desert while he reads a pre-prepared script. It later shows what appears to be the aid worker's body.
16/40 2014 - September
Peshmerga fighters scrabble to hold positions in the Diyala province (a gateway to Baghdad) as Isis fighters continue to advance on Iraqi capital.
17/40 2014 - October
Aid worker Alan Henning is killed. Self-imposed media blackout refuses to show images of him in final moments, instead focuses upon humanitarian care.
18/40 2014 - October
Isis raise their flag in Kobani, which had been strongly defended by Kurdish troops. The victory goes against hopeful western analysis Isis had overextended itself, while alienating much of the Muslim population through the murder of Henning. Victory causes fresh waves of Kurdish refugees arriving in Turkey.
19/40 2014 - November
American hostage, who embarced values of Islam, Peter Kassig and 14 Syrian soldiers are shown meeting the same fate as other captives. But intelligence agencies will be poring over the apparently significant discrepancies between this and previous films.
20/40 2015 - February
Isis has released a video revealing the murder by burning to death of a Jordanian pilot held by the group since the end of December 2014.
21/40 2015 - February
Isis militants have released videos which appear to show the beheading of Japanese hostages Haruna Yukawa and Kenji Goto.
22/40 2015 - February
American aid worker, Kayla Mueller was the last American hostage known to be held by Isis. She died, according to her captors, in an airstrike by the Jordanian air force on the city of Raqqa in Syria, though US authorities disputed this.
23/40 2015 - February
Isis militants have posted a gruesome video online in which they force 21 Egyptian Coptic Christian hostages to kneel on a beach in Libya before beheading them. Egypt vowed to avenge the beheading and launched air strikes on Isis positions.
24/40 2015 - February
The British Isis militant suspected of appearing in videos showing the beheading of Western hostages has been named in reports as Mohammed Emwazi from London.
25/40 2015 - March
Isis triple suicide attack has killed more than 100 worshippers and hundreds of others were injured after the group members targeted two mosques in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa.
26/40 2015 - April
Iraqi forces have claimed victory over Isis in battle for Tikrit and raised the flag in the city.
27/40 2015 - April
Isis has claimed responsibility for a suicide bomb attack in Afghanistan that killed at least 35 people queuing to collect their wages and injured 100 more.
28/40 2015 - April
Isis’ media arm released a 29-minute video purporting to show militants executing Ethiopian Christians captives. The footage bore the extremist group’s al-Furqan media logo and showed the destruction of churches and desecration of religious symbols. A masked fighter made a statement threatening Christians who did not convert to Islam or pay a special tax.
29/40 2015 - May
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of Isis has been "incapacitated" by a spinal injuries sustained in a US air strike in Iraq. He is being treated in a hideout by two doctors from Isis’ stronghold of Mosul who are said to be "strong ideological supporters of the group".
30/40 2015 - May
Isis has also claimed responsibility for killing 300 of Yazidi captives, including women, children and elderly people in Iraq
31/40 2015 - May
Isis attack on Prophet Mohamed cartoon contest in Texas was its first action on US soil. Two gunmen were shot and killed after launching the attack at the exhibition. Elton Simpson and Nadir Soofi have been named as the attackers at the Curtis Culwell Centre arena in Garland.
32/40 2015 - May
Isis’s deputy leader, Abu Alaa Afri, a former physics teacher who was thought to have taken charge of the deadly terrorist group, has been killed in a US-led coalition airstrike.
33/40 2015 - May
US special forces have killed a senior Isis leader named as Abu Sayyaf in an operation aiming to capture him and his wife in Syria.
34/40 2015 - May
Iran-backed militias are sent to Ramadi by the Iraqi government to fight Isis militants who completed their capture of the city. Government soldiers and civilians were reportedly massacred by extremists as they took control and the army fled. Charred bodies were left littering the city streets as troops clung on to trucks speeding away from the city. Ramadi is the latest government stronghold to fall to the so-called Islamic State, despite air strikes by a US-led international coalition aiming to stop its advance in Iraq and Syria.
35/40 2015 - May
Isis rounded up civilians trapped in Palmyra and forced them to watch 20 people being executed in the historic city’s ancient amphitheatre. The Unesco World Heritage site was overrun by militants, threatening the future of 2,000 year-old monuments and ruins. Thousands of Palmyra’s residents fled but many are still living within the city walls, while the UN human rights office in Geneva said it had received reports of Syrian government forces preventing people from leaving until they retreated from the city.
36/40 2015 - May
A group of Isis-affiliated fighters have captured a key airport in central Libya. The militants took control of the al-Qardabiya airbase in Sirte after a local militia tasked with defending the facility withdrew from their positions. Affiliates of Isis, already control large parts of Sirte, the birthplace of former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and a former stronghold of his supporters.
37/40 2015 - June
The US Air Force has destroyed an Isis stronghold after an extremist let slip their location on social media. According the Air Force Times, General Herbert "Hawk" Carlisle, commander of Air Combat Command, said that Airmen at Hulburt Field, Florida, used images shared by jihadists to track the location of their headquarters before destroying it in an airstrike.
38/40 2015 - June
Kurdish forces captured a key military base in a significant victory in Raqqa as well as town of Tell Abyad. YPG fighters, backed by US-led airstrikes and other rebels, consolidated their gains, when they seized the key town on the Syria-Turkey border. They are now just 30 miles to the north of Raqqa and have cut off a major supply route deep inside Isis-held territory.
39/40 2015 - June
Isis has released gruesome footage claiming to show the murder of more than a dozen men by drowning, decapitation and using a rocket-propelled grenade as it seeks to boost morale among its fanatical supporters.
40/40 2015 - June
Isis has begun carrying out its threat to destroy structures in the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra, blowing up at least two monuments at the Unesco-protected site as Syrian government troops made advances on the Islamist’s positions.
I was first shown pictures of smuggled artefacts from Syria a year ago. Laid out on discarded Turkish newspapers and documented by camera-phone was a series of 13th-century Christian manuscripts and a book marked with what was claimed to be Freemason iconography.
The manuscripts are now in Germany, according to the two men – the dealers’ entrepreneurial colleague is attempting to set up business there, and the Masonic book is also “on tour” and currently in Sweden. The rest of their wares are also catalogued on their mobile phones. To avoid detection and to keep risk low, the antiquities are stashed in various locations across Turkey and inside Syria.
“It’s like a business,” they reassure me, albeit one that’s replete with a network of diggers, smugglers and dealers. “Anything you want, we can get for you. Just look at the pictures and tell us what you like.”
They flick through screeds of browned, leather-bound manuscripts; Christian documents inscribed in Aramaic and Greek; Jewish artefacts adorned with the star of David; perfume from ancient Egypt accompanied by claims of its aphrodisiac properties.
After some time we are joined by Tarek, fresh from a dig across the border. Excitedly he produces a polythene bag full of coins, jewels and small carvings. His pièce de résistance is an Athenian dekadrachm coin – of which only 30 verified examples exist. They are typically valued at around $300,000 (£198,000) and he is convinced he’s found one.
“It has been my dream for 17 years to hold this,” he says. Before the war, archaeological digs took place across the country and local labourers like Tarek were often employed at the sites.
It’s a fake – at least according to the experts who are later consulted, who point to inconsistencies in the colouring. The coin has a green tinge, possibly due to copper in the alloy.
The relief, however – the one in the laptop bag – is a different matter. A number of archaeologists have confirmed to The Independent on Sunday that they believe it to be genuine. And while experts are wary of talking about its value, in order not to encourage potential trade, it could be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.
It has been identified as a Sumerian relief or wall plaque from the 3rd century BC city-state of Lagash, located in the south-east of modern Iraq. Specialists are aware of just a handful in existence, with one carefully kept in the Louvre Museum in Paris.
Though the vast majority of the loot shown by the men is likely to have come from Syria, experts guess that the plaque was excavated by Iraqi Shia groups in around 2006, and then gradually trafficked on via Iran or Syria.
The videos released by Isis, showing the destruction of Nimrud and other sites, as part of what it calls “a war on false idols”, have caused an international outcry, but the extremist force has also been cashing in on the illegal export of the region’s cultural heritage.
In Isis-controlled areas where rich pickings can be found (Raqqa and northern Aleppo in particular), the self-proclaimed caliphate has implemented a system based on the taxation of war spoils, according to US academics and anecdotes verified by the dealers – although it is difficult to ascertain how many times they have dealt directly with Isis members .
“If we find jewellery or gold, Isis charge us 20 per cent of the value and it’s official. Once you get permission you can tell everyone you’re going to the land and dig. You apply to Isis to get permission to dig,” the dealer says. “If we find a statue, IS will destroy it because it’s an idol, so we hide them.”
Once in Turkey, the onward sale is their responsibility; they say that they can arrange to transport the artefacts as far as Greece or Bulgaria.
The Syrian Heritage Initiative (SHI), supported by the US Department of State and the American School of Oriental Research, is lobbying for greater controls to stop this multimillion-dollar industry that funds terror. Black-market art and antiquities – either stolen from private collections, or looted from national museums – forms the third largest illicit market in the world after drugs and arms.
And the trade routes are well known, according to Michael Danti a co-director of SHI, who leads a team of US and Syrian scholars and archaeologists. Once brought to Turkey, Syrian artefacts travel out of Turkey’s big coastal ports – Mersin, Antalya or Izmir – alongside smuggled Syrian refugees desperate to reach European shores. Once they arrive in Europe, usually via Cyprus, Italy, Greece or Portugal, a dealer will concoct false papers for the artefact.
“Once they’re in the EU, they try to build a legal import status and create false accreditation that says this stuff has been here for a long time with a European family and from an old collection, to make the stuff easier to export,” Dr Danti says. “They go from there and build false paperwork.”
It then becomes much harder to track both the smugglers and their goods, despite international efforts. Soren Pedersen, chief of media and PR at Europol – the EU’s law enforcement agency – says that any illegal trade would require the “right networks”; there is the potential for things to get through.
“There are many entry points [to Europe] – just look at shipping,” he says. “Many container ships carry 15,000 boxes… there are big possibilities for artefacts to enter illegally – you can’t have a customs officer checking every box, and that’s why when it comes to dealing with organised crime, intelligence is very important.”
The burden is mostly falling on Turkey however, which is under continuing pressure to tighten its long and porous border. It’s not only foreign jihadis that are taking advantage of lax border spots to join Isis, but artefacts are just as easily smuggled into the country to be picked up by organised crime gangs, as well as amateurs.
According to Edouard Planche, an expert in the illicit trafficking of cultural property for Unesco, the main culprits are traditional organised crime groups, linked to drugs and weapons networks, although smaller players are now becoming involved in a desperate bid to make money.
“People are trying to make a living,” Dr Danti says. “The biggest culprits in all of this have to be the refugee crisis, the humanitarian crisis and the issue of poverty – right now that’s really contributing to property crime.
“Locals will go out and excavate for antiquities and bring this stuff to Isis and get paid, or they’re willing to traffic this stuff and pay Isis a tax to smuggle it into Turkey.”
There are problems with the Sumerian relief, however: it’s too big to transport covertly and too unique for a fabricated history.
This could be why, Dr Danti believes, the dealers have had to hold on to it for so long – it’s simply too difficult to sell on the open market and needs a direct buyer.
And the authorities hope it will not get any easier, with international agencies now lining up to tackle the flood of items washing into the EU and beyond.
In February, the UN Security Council adopted resolution 2199, part of which formally recognises the link between the traffic of antiquities and terrorism funding, and has banned the trade of Iraqi and Syrian artefacts.
Irina Bokova, Unesco’s director general, refers to the problem as a “cultural genocide” and is establishing a crack team including Interpol – the international police organisation – and a number of international cultural agencies.
Interpol for its part, says it is too early to have firmly established information on any well-worn routes for the smuggling of artefacts, and is also still compiling information on those suspected of smuggling. The agency also relies on the police force of each country to flag cross-border crime.
A spokeswoman told The IoS: “Interpol is following up on anecdotal evidence of potential trafficking of Syrian/Iraqi items from select destination markets, and cross-checking information from our works of art, counter-terrorism and fugitives units to identify individuals of possible interest.”
But while efforts are being made on an international level, it’s individual countries that are responsible for stepping up searches and seizures of antiquities at ports of entry, a job made harder when officials are also dealing with forged replicas.
A traditional point of entry to the EU from Turkey for all sorts of contraband is Bulgaria, which is itself facing a long battle with looters (and forgers) of its own cultural heritage, as well as Syrian and Iraqi artefacts. In March, another suspected Sumerian relief was seized in a police raid among a haul of coins and other antiquities in the north of the country and three men were arrested, one of whom was a Turkish national.
The authorities told The IoS that the seizure is still being authenticated and the investigation is ongoing. From initial pictures however, some experts have deemed the relief a fake, further confusing matters.
What is clear however, is that tackling antiquity smuggling is key for counterterrorism efforts targeting Isis’s and al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra’s funding streams, although it is much more subtle than the US air-strikes on oil facilities, which are the Islamists’ main revenue generator.
While the Sumerian relief seen in the laptop bag might be too bulky to slip into a pocket, other artefacts are much easier to conceal, and are worth many barrels of oil, Dr Danti says. Once removed from its original geographical location, an artefact can lose much of its context and even if recovered, archaeologists would struggle to provide its full history and its cultural importance.
For Dr Danti, this loss of context is one of his biggest concerns. “It’s still a very interesting example of Lagash Sumerian art, and it has an inscription that points to where it’s from,” he said of the relief the dealers had shown me. “But we don’t know the exact time period or how it was used exactly… Eighty per cent of the information content, from an archeological standpoint, has been lost.”
Names in Gaziantep have been changed