Vanishing cultural heritage

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According to the University of Chicago, “Mesopotamia” or “The Land between Rivers” is considered to be the cradle of civilization because this is where archeologists have found the origins of agriculture, written language, religion, government, and cities.”

In the Bronze Age, Mesopotamia included Sumer, Babylonia, and Assyria, corresponding to most of modern time Iraq, northern Syria and small parts of Iran, Kuwait, and Turkey. This land’s invaluable historical heritage is in danger of total annihilation.

Over the past few months, people around the world witnessed chilling footages of mass destruction and looting of the ancient civilization’s cultural heritage. Takfiri ISIL fanatics destroy almost all heavy objects too big to move with sledgehammers, jackhammers, bonfires, fire axes and even grenades. However, in reality, such destruction is nothing compared to the most significant threat to invaluable objects. The historical artifacts small enough to move (and in most cases more precious) are stolen, channeled through an enormous, lucrative European antiquities black market, ending up in London antique shops. London Portobello antic market is flourishing these days. Antique dealers are rubbing hands while batches of smuggled artifacts are being delivered to their doorsteps on a daily basis.

A short walk through London Portobello market with a keen eye can quickly expose how London is now turned into a fanfare for smuggled and pillaged Syrian and Iraqi artifacts. Collectors can find anything they fancy: Roman Mosaics, glassware, potteries, gold items, coins, ancient Babylonian cuneiform tablets, whatever a collector may dream, you name it!

The smuggling route begins from archeologically important areas mostly in Mosul in Iraq and Aleppo in Syria. Mosul is very close to the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud and Aleppo is well known for being the oldest inhabited city of the world. Both cities are currently within territories occupied by ISIL terrorists.

From day one, ISIL has made all connections overseas keeping the business under their control. The stolen artifacts are smuggled trough either Lebanon or Turkey, which are used as transit stations.

Gangs smuggle the artifacts from there to Eastern Europe. European smugglers, who enjoy their illicit trade, have business cards and official offices in the USA, UK, France, and the Netherlands.

The United Kingdom is the 2nd largest arts and antiquities market in the world, and it is estimated that over 60% of looted Syrian antiquities end up in London. That was also the case during the wars against Afghanistan and Iraq.

While almost all dealers of antiquities in London categorically deny any involvement in the trade and claim that they have no connection with smugglers and dealers at all, the relationship is undeniable. Suppliers (in this case ISIL) need vendors, and merchants (in this case British art dealers) need a constant flow of supplies!

Even the British police admit that many auction houses across the United Kingdom are actively involved in the illegitimate and prohibited trade. In many cases, the ancient artifacts are presented by the auction houses as items previously kept in private locations. Surprisingly (or maybe not) there are still chunks of mud and traces of sand stuck to the artifacts. This is a good sign that treasure diggers have recently excavated the artifacts.

The British art market dealing with ancient cultural heritage casts a destructive show. The source countries are not well equipped to protect their cultural heritage against plunder and the market takes advantage of the situation. The British neo-colonial policies and militaristic adventurism is the most valued opportunity for the British underground antiquities market. The British establishment provides the hotbed for lootings while turning a blind eye to the illicit trade. The value estimates of this illicit underground market is not reliable although figures as high as 3 billion pounds are speculated. 

Major British auctions and collecting institutions and even museums are also implicated in the trade. They deliberately ignore the “provenance” (ownership history) of the artifacts easing the process for smugglers to insert the smuggled objects into the legitimate trade where they have the most value. On many occasions, smuggling rings use Sotheby’s Holdings auction to put their goods on sale. Sotheby is the largest public trade auction house in the world and it is not alone in this.

Hundreds of lawsuits are already lodged against British Museums by different foreign authorities. The museum is accused of keeping looted artifacts in London illegally.  

This dirty market is the legacy of the British colonial era. During that time, dealing looted antiquities and artifacts was free, uncontested and open, and imperialistic values even encouraged it. — Jane Calvary

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