Since the outbreak of the uprising 21 months ago, there have been reports of antiquities being stolen from sites that previously were well guarded. But now, according to a man involved in the trade, it is becoming more systematic.
“It’s very similar to Iraq,” he said. In both countries, he explained, the looting became “more organised” as time went by.
Syria is unusually rich in archaeological sites; it was at the frontier of the Roman and Parthian empires, and contains traces of all the important civilisations that had a presence in the Middle East going back to the earliest settled cultures. It is also unusual in having churches and mosques which have been in continuous use since the early days of Christianity and Islam.
Artefacts are dug up or stolen from the many sites, smuggled across the Lebanese and Turkish borders, authenticated by experts and then sold on to clients from around the world, including the US, according to people involved in the trade.
It is potentially big business. A small statue is worth $30,000, the trader said.
Another man involved in the trafficking interviewed this year said he was offered an object for $300,000.
A video posted on the internet purportedly taken in the ancient city of Palmyra gives an indication of the ravages wrought by the illegal trade. It shows several stone sculptures apparently stolen from the site being loaded on to a pickup truck.
Initially, the looting happened in an ad hoc manner, sometimes with the apparent collusion of security services.
One activist interviewed in the ancient city of Apamea said that excavating and selling antiquities there, mainly mosaics, had become a rare source of income for ordinary people in an economy ravaged by war." (thanks Joseph)