When we think of the war against Islamic State terrorists, the Defense Department, the State Department and the intelligence agencies come to mind.
We should add the Smithsonian Institution to the list.
The Smithsonian, better known for museums ringing the Mall, is one of a half-dozen agencies cited in a Government Accountability Office report on the “Protection of Iraqi and Syrian Antiquities.” Smithsonian experts provide cultural property protection training in countries facing war or natural disasters.
“To prevent destruction, the Smithsonian and others trained Syrian antiquities professionals to use sandbags and other materials to protect ancient mosaics at a Syrian museum, reportedly resulting in the successful protection of the museum collection when it was bombed,” according to the GAO.
Brian Daniels, a Smithsonian research associate and director of research and programs at the University of Pennsylvania Museum Cultural Heritage Center, has worked in Syria and Iraq and talked about colleagues there who risk their lives to protect their heritage, which is also the world’s.
“We really have to stand up and take notice” and assist them, Daniels said by phone. It is work that “has consumed my life for the past three years.”
U.S. efforts are aimed not only at the protection of artifacts, but also their illegal sale.
ISIS has “established an Antiquities Division with units dedicated to researching known archaeological sites, exploring new ones, and marketing antiquities,” GAO said, citing State Department information.
John Russell, a State Department senior adviser for Iraqi cultural heritage, said “one thing that is happening in Syria that is almost unprecedented in my experience is organized looting, probably under the eye of terrorist organizations.”
He talked about ancient and now “decimated” Syrian sites like Dura Europos and Apamea. “I’ve been to those places,” he said. “I just love them.” And in Mosul, Iraq, “there has been a huge amount of deliberate destruction of monuments.”
Two years ago, Secretary of State John Kerry cited those two sites when he talked about threats to cultural heritage in Iraq and Syria.
“How shocking and historically shameful it would be if we did nothing while the forces of chaos rob the very cradle of our civilization,” he said at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. “So many different traditions trace their roots back to this part of the world, as we all know. This is the first thing many of us learned in school. The looting of Apamea and Dura Europos, the devastation caused by fighting in the ancient UNESCO heritage city of Aleppo, the destruction of the Tomb of Jonah – these appalling acts aren’t just a tragedy for the Syrian and the Iraqi people. These acts of vandalism are a tragedy for all civilized people, and the civilized world must take a stand.”
Documents, along with hundreds of historical objects, discovered during a special operations raid in eastern Syria, indicate “the Antiquities Division collects a 20 percent tax on the proceeds of antiquities looting and issues permits authorizing certain individuals to excavate and supervise excavations of artifacts,” according to the report. “State officials also noted that although trafficking is difficult to quantify, ISIS has increasingly turned to the antiquities trade as access to revenue from other sources, such as oil, has been restricted.” Receipts show it took in more than $265,000 in sales taxes during a four-month period spanning 2014 and 2015.
The looting and destruction of art work, artifacts and cultural property is nothing new in war, but the civil war in Syria, which began in 2011, and the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq have resulted in “the worst cultural heritage crisis since World War II,” according to the report.
“Damages include the shelling of medieval cities and looting of museums containing items that date back more than 6 millennia,” GAO said. “By around July 2014, ISIS had destroyed hundreds of religious sites throughout the territory it controlled, including Christian statues of the Virgin Mary and the tomb of the Prophet Jonah in Mosul.”
Today’s work to protect and recover art work displaced by war follows the efforts of the “Monuments Men” during the last world war. They were drawn from the Allies “when the Nazi regime made a practice of looting art and other cultural property during World War II,” according to GAO. “The Monuments Men returned more than 5 million works of art to their owners.”
Russell said the government has an enduring commitment to protect cultural properties in war-torn Syria and Iraq. “Our commitment is a long term one,” he added. “We have been really working to make a difference.”