The looted antiquities of Middle East on sale on Facebook

A mosaic claimed to be from Aleppo, offered for sale on Facebook
A mosaic claimed to be from Aleppo, offered for sale on Facebook

At least 90 Facebook groups directly related to illegal trade of antiquities in the region were detected.

Groups on Facebook have exposed antiquities that were smuggled from theMiddle East during the Arab Spring riots and the subsequent war that ravagedparts of the region, creating unprecedented opportunities for those involved intrade and smuggling of antiquities, Amr Al-Azm, professor of Middle Easternhistory and anthropology at Shawnee University, Ohio, and former SyrianArchaeologist. Dr. Amr and his colleagues were trying to monitor the tradewithin the "Athar" project they are supervising.

Meanwhile, Dr. Amr Al-Azm said, "Social media has succeeded in reducingbarriers to entry into this market. At present, there are at least 90 groups onFacebook that are directly related to the illegal trade in antiquities in theMiddle East. These groups include tens of thousands of members."

Often, these groups publish photos of these pieces or queries about them in the group, and then move on to chat, WhatsApp messages, or text messages, making it difficult to track them. Some users publish requests for certain types of pieces, providing an incentive for traders to offer them for sale, a method that Dr. Amr Al-Azm described as "theft by request".

Others publish detailed instructions to aspiring thieves on how to find archaeological sites and dig in order to extract treasures.

Bust of the ruins of Palmyra published by a group on Facebook for sale

The pieces for sale include a bust statue that is believed to have been stolen from the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra, which has been occupied by ISIS for a period of time, during which there were massive thefts and destruction of historical monuments there.

Nimrod monuments in Iraq

The other antiquities offered for sale on these groups often come from Iraq, Yemen, Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya. Most of the pieces do not come from museums or private archaeological collections, where the antiquities are cataloged to ensure their preservation.

Dr. Amr Al-Azmsaid: "The antiquities were plundered from the archaeological sites directly.No one had seen any of them before. The only evidence we have of theirexistence is when someone publishes the image of the piece on the Internet."

Dr. Al-Azm,together with Dr. Katie Paul, directors of Athar Project, wrote in theWorld Politics Review last year that theft by requests showed that traffickersand smugglers were aiming to steal the antiquities with the highest levels ofaccuracy required, which is, thanks to Facebook, of the easiest.

After the BBCpublished an article about Dr. Al-Azm's work and his colleagues last week,Facebook said it had closed 49 groups related to trade and smuggling of antiquities.

Dr. Al-Azmreported that there are 90 groups, including many large groups, involved inthis illegal trade still exist. But more importantly, he said, Facebook shouldnot simply close those groups, which are now a crucial evidence for law enforcementagencies, archaeologists, and heritage experts.

In a statementissued on last Tuesday, Facebook company said it "continues to usepeople and technology to exclude such activities outside of Facebook," andencourages others to report anything they suspect or directly violates the Company'sstandards so that they can quickly take the necessary measures ".

The Company's spokespersonsaid that policy enforcement team has 30,000 members and they have developednew tools to detect and remove content that violates laws or policies usingartificial intelligence, automated learning, and computer vision.

Trafficking inantiquities is an illegal trade in most parts of the Middle East, and dealingwith the stolen effects of illegal activities under the provisions ofinternational law. But it may be difficult to follow or prosecute perpetratorsof such crimes.

Laila AminDoli, an attorney in New York who specializes in arts and cultural heritage,said that identifying sources of looted antiquities could be one of thestrenuous and stressful endeavors, and a major obstacle before lawyers andacademics alike.

Dr Al-Azm saidthat his research team pointed out that Facebook groups are run by aninternational network of antiquities dealers looking for buyers everywhere,including the West. Sales are often completed in person and in cash in nearbycountries, despite efforts in Turkey and other countries to combat cross-bordertrafficking of antiquities.

Al-Azm criticizedFacebook for not listening to the warnings of sales of stolen antiquities throughthe Company's groups early in 2014. At that time, it would have been possibleto close these groups and force them to stop or at least limit their growth.

With the pastexpansion of ISIS, elements of which, using heavy equipment, were able to lootand destroy ancient archaeological sites where there had been no excavationsprior to the outbreak of the Syrian civil war. The terrorist group allowedlocal people and other thieves to steal from ancient archaeological sites andimposed a 20% tax on the profits of those thefts.

Some local people and cultural heritage experts were quick to document and preserve ancient monuments, including efforts to the physical protection of monuments and the creation of three-dimensional models and maps to preserve archaeological sites. Despite these great efforts, thefts and losses were catastrophic.

One of the world's earliest churches, one of the oldest preserved synagogues and numerous temples are now covered by looters' pits

Satelliteimages show how priceless archaeological sites, such as the site of Mary and Dura-Eupoposin eastern Syria, have been dotted with the excavations of antiquities'thieves. At the Mosul Museum in Iraq, the gunmen took photos for themselvesholding heavy hammers and smashing what they saw as pagan from the previouscivilizations monuments. These acts were designed to serve the propagandaefforts of the terrorist group.

According to a UN report, Twenty-four of Syria's cultural heritage sites have been destroyed during the country's civil war. An additional 266 such sites have been affected, and 189 of those are moderately to severely damaged.

Temple of Palmyra, Syria

Differentfactions, groups, and people have also benefited from looting in archaeologicalsites. In fact, the market was so saturated that the price fell significantlyover a long period of 2016, Al-Azm said.

At about thesame time, elements of ISIS spread out after the despicable regional defeats oftheir terrorist group and transferred their new experiences in looting theantiquities to their countries, including Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and otherparts of Syria, such as Idlib.

"It's purely amatter of supply and demand," Al-Azm says and any new request, gives thieves anew incentive and the arising money may be used in the financing of someterrorist groups.

"Instead ofjust deleting the pages or closing the groups, Facebook should develop a morecomprehensive strategy to stop the sale of stolen antiquities while allowinginvestigators and law enforcement agencies to keep the hastily published photosand loaded records on these groups. After all, they may be the only evidenceavailable to law enforcement agencies, archeologists, and heritage experts,"Dr. Amr Al-Azm added: "Just deleting the page or close the group from Facebook leadsto the destruction of massive evidences that are necessary in identifying,tracing, and restoring the looted treasures in the coming years."

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