The Pillaging of the Cradle of Civilization

Since early 2011, uprisings and revolutions in the Middle East have brought down old regimes, and in the wake of bloodshed and chaos, looters and profiteers have descended onto ancient sites and plundered antiquities and rare books for profit, representing an irreparable loss of our global cultural heritage. The looters' meticulous organization is astonishing - satellite images detail the scale of the destruction, and timestamped images indicate how quickly these treasures are disappearing. ISIS maintains a sophisticated network of in-house archaeologists and arts experts who identify and document artifacts, because looting is a tremendous business that shows no signs of abating. Where's all this loot going? To American and European auction houses, or right into the hands of wealthy collectors throughout the world.

Tonight, the HBO newsmagazine VICE is airing an episode dedicated to the robust trade of black-market antiquities flourishing in Egypt, Iraq, and Syria.  In "Egyptian Tomb Raiders," reporter Gianna Toboni visits world heritage sites such as the tombs at Luxor and Abu Sir Al-Malaq. There, a group of professional looters takes her to a site currently under illicit excavation. The camera pans the surroundings - huge holes hastily dug into the dirt, littered with piles of unwrapped mummified skulls and bones, remains ransacked for jewelry buried thousands of years ago. Large tire tracks in the sand indicate the presence of trucks and bulldozers that paved the way for this wholesale desecration.

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Photo credit: Courtesy of HBO

Toboni even gets a local boss to detail the export process. Holding a small stone carving of a queen, she asks how much a dealer in Cairo would pay for that one piece. Without hesitating, he estimates it could fetch $33,000 to $37,000, of which he would net around nine thousand dollars, while his pit crew would earn about $4,000. He adds that he does not know the ultimate price an American would pay.  Multiply the value of that one statue by the thousands of antiquities and manuscripts that disappear daily, and the figures become astronomical. (Some estimates put ISIS's daily income in the millions of dollars.)

In another scene Toboni visits the Cairo Ministry of Antiquities, where a team of three men search online auction sites for stolen goods. At one point, the director holds up a Christie's Auction Catalog of a sale of Egyptian Antiquities and says, point blank, that some of the items in that sale were stolen, and that dealers falsified provenance to avoid being incriminated for trafficking in stolen cultural property.

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Photo credit: Courtesy of HBO

Toboni doesn't go to Syria, but she does speak with a Syrian archaeologist, Shawnee State University professor Dr. Amr Al-Azm, who is spearheading an effort to document the destruction via a team of dedicated in-country volunteers. It's an uphill battle against a transnational criminal organization, but at least he's started the effort to stop it.  

"Egyptian Tomb Raiders" is a fascinating documentary and begs further inquiry into shady auction house practices and leads viewers to wonder why there isn't legislation that could inhibit the sale of ill-gotten antiques, at least here in the United States. In fact, bill 5703 was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives in November 2014 that would have authorized the President to impose import restrictions on antiquities from Syria.It was referred to the Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice on November 24, and remained there, without action, until the end of the 113th Congress, whereupon the bill died. (Read HR 5703 here.)

At one point, Toboni asks a masked tomb raider how he feels about his job. "I feel like I am stealing from my country and selling it," he says. "But I need to feed my kids."

Watch VICE Fridays on HBO at 11 PM, 10 PM central, or stream it via HBO Now,
and catch a sneak-peek of tonight's show here.