Looted Art Helps Fund Jihadists in Europe


Looted Art Helps Fund Jihadists in Europe

Belgium is poorly prepared to combat the illicit trade in antiquities from Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.

The National Museum of Palmyra after being plundered, March 27. PHOTO: SPUTNIK/ASSOCIATED PRESS
The National Museum of Palmyra after being plundered, March 27. PHOTO: SPUTNIK/ASSOCIATED PRESS

By DEBORAH LEHR and TESS DAVIS | Aug. 25, 2016 6:40 p.m. ET

Brussels has long been a destination of choice for those illegally trafficking antiquities—a category that potentially includes the funders of terrorism that has taken lives throughout the West in recent months. Belgium brings together all the elements that allow this illicit trade to flourish: lax laws and enforcement for art crimes, a location with easy access to the rest of the world, and a ready market. The Belgian capital is also a known transit point for looted art. In 2009, an undercover report by LinkTV exposed that Taliban-looted masterpieces were widely available for sale in the Brussels’ galleries, fresh with dirt from Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The European Union’s de facto capital is also home to terror cells dependent on criminal activity to fund violence. The municipality of Molenbeek, where terrorists planned the 2015 Paris attacks, is a hub for this illegal trafficking. Today its homegrown extremists have direct access to an unprecedented supply of plundered artifacts from Iraq and Syria.

Both Islamic State fighters and those fleeing them provide channels to bring stolen material directly to Brussels. More than a million refugees entered Europe in 2015—over half from Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan—with tens of thousands seeking asylum in Belgium. According to the archaeologist Michael Danti, “Antiquities are smuggled out of Syria and Iraq following routes similar to those of refugees fleeing the conflict zone.”

The United Nations Security Council reported in February 2015 that plundered heritage from the Middle East forms a critical revenue source for Islamic State, Nusra Front and al Qaeda. Meantime, the U.S. government says that Islamic State alone has earned millions hawking looted relics. A May 2015 U.S. Special Forces raid targeting a senior Islamic State leader in eastern Syria uncovered receipts for antiquities transactions worth $1.3 million for only a three-month period. Nearly a third of jihadist cells operating in Europe make money through various illicit trades, including document forgery and weapons trafficking, according to a 2015 report from the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment.

Compared with other forms of trafficking, the antiquities trade is particularly attractive, as it carries a low risk of detection with potential for high profits. Given the millions of archaeological sites across the Middle East and North Africa, the supply of ancient artifacts is virtually limitless. Until the conflicts in Iraq and Syria end, little can be done to fight this illicit trade from the supply side. Yet simple reforms can stem the demand for such products.

Belgian law enforcement today is poorly prepared to combat the illicit trade in antiquities. In April, the federal police disbanded its art and antiquities division due to budgetary concerns. Interior Minister Jan Jambon wrote in a letter, published in April, that such crime was “not considered a priority.” Belgium’s neighbors disagree: Due to the influx of antiquities from the Middle East, France and the Netherlands have recently strengthened their own art squads. Poland and Romania have created new ones. Belgium also has lax cultural-property laws, even as Germany and the U.K. have strengthened theirs.

Terrorism is a relatively inexpensive endeavor. The November attacks in Paris cost $10,000 to implement, two counterterrorism officials estimated. When Iraqi or Syrian antiquities, potentially from illicit sources, sell for millions at major auction houses in Western capitals, it only takes the sale of a few Syrian mosaics stolen from Palmyra to fund several terrorist attacks.

Belgium should follow the example of its EU partners by cracking down on illicit trades and strengthening laws against peddling in antiquities stolen from conflict zones. The EU capital should be setting the standard, not lagging behind. If the Belgian government fails to take action, much more than cultural heritage will be at stake.

Ms. Lehr is chairman, and Ms. Davis executive director, of the Antiquities Coalition, a Washington, D.C.-based group of experts that fights cultural racketeering.

PDF of article here



Alleged Al-Qaeda-linked Islamist leader Ahmad Faqi Al Mahdi arrives in the courtroom of the International Criminal Court (ICC) on September 30, 2015, in The Hague. Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi was transferred to the ICC on September 26 following an arrest warrant issued by the Court on September 18 facing charges of ordering the destruction of monuments in Mali's fabled city of Timbuktu. AFP PHOTO / ANP POOL / ROBIN VAN LONKHUIJSEM ==NETHERLANDS OUT== (Photo credit should read ROBIN VAN LONKHUIJSEN/AFP/Getty Images)
Alleged Al-Qaeda-linked Islamist leader Ahmad Faqi Al Mahdi arrives in the courtroom of the International Criminal Court (ICC) on September 30, 2015, in The Hague. AFP PHOTO / ANP POOL / ROBIN VAN LONKHUIJSEM

ON WEDNESDAY, JUDGES at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands, found Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi, a member of an extremist group with connections to Al Qaeda, guilty of the destruction of nine mausoleums and a mosque door in Timbuktu. Al Mahdi was the first person tried for the destruction of cultural heritage by the ICC, and the first to plead guilty before the tribunal since it started in 2002.

He didn’t contest the charges in large part because the evidence against him was not only vast but compellingly assembled, presented to the judges via an interactive digital platform that combined videos, photos, satellite imagery, and panoramas to show how Al Mahdi systematically and deliberately destroyed those historic sites. Video from the trial shows prosecutors clicking around a satellite map that charts exactly where the crimes occurred and presenting video and photo evidence that documents the sites before, during, and after the crimes. They even have a 360-degree view of the aftermath. In one video the prosecutors showed, men standing atop a pile of rubble swing pickaxes into the side of a centuries-old Mausoleum. In another, they swing axes into the side of a building.

The platform itself isn’t advanced, technologically speaking. It looks like a late-1990s homebrew website. That’s not its strength. “What we did here was, in some ways, quite simple,” says Brad Samuels, co-founder of Situ Research, the Brooklyn design studio that developed the presentation tool with the ICC. Samuels and his team listed the destroyed monuments on the tool’s left-hand side. Selecting one from the list splits the area right of the list into three windows. The top left window displays photographic, videographic, and diagrammatic evidence. The top right window shows before-and-after satellite imagery, which the user can switch between with the aid of an image slider. The bottom window presents a panoramic view of each destroyed site.

From a rhetorical standpoint, the tool can have a huge impact. Prior to Situ’s platform, lawyers would present evidence piecemeal, calling up each video, photo, or satellite image on a screen one at a time, almost as though they were surfing the internet. “It works, but it takes more time and you still need in the end to try to rebuild all the links between all the pieces of evidence,” says Gilles Dutertre, senior trial lawyer for the Al Mahdi case. Dutertre says most of the cases he sees at the ICC could benefit from a tool that allows for an uninterrupted narrative. Ultimately, a more cohesive presentation of evidence helps judges to see the broader picture of a case more clearly. “The beauty of such a platform is that it speaks for itself,” he says.

Satellite imagery shows the Sheikh Sidi El Mokhtar Ben Sidi Mouhammad Al Kabir Al Kounti Mausoleum, one of the sites al-Mahdi pled guilty to attacking, before and after its destruction. The slider functionality mimics that made possible by Situ's platform.
Satellite imagery shows the Sheikh Sidi El Mokhtar Ben Sidi Mouhammad Al Kabir Al Kounti Mausoleum, one of the sites al-Mahdi pled guilty to attacking, before and after its destruction. The slider functionality mimics that made possible by Situ’s platform.

But this kind of presentation works especially well in a case like Al Mahdi’s—one with a huge amount of visual evidence, much of which the criminals themselves created for propaganda purposes. “The destruction of cultural property leaves a very tangible record,” says Tess Davis, executive director of the Antiquities Coalition, an organization dedicated to tracking and preventing the destruction of cultural heritage. A wealth of evidence isn’t always easy to organize in a compelling way, but Davis believes Situ’s solution could fix that problem, and ultimately become standard procedure in similar trials. “This evidence will lead to more prosecutions,” she says. “While this may be the first time this technology is used, it won’t be the last.”

For his crimes, Al Mahdi is facing up to 11 years in prison—a sentence the judges will hand down in September. In the meantime, Situ is working to adapt the platform for a case surrounding the burning of villages in South Sudan, and Samuels figures the platform will gather even more interest now that the Al Mahdi case has closed.

PDF of article here

The Big Business Of Looted Antiquities


Wednesday, Aug 24 2016 • 11:14 a.m. (ET)

The Big Business Of Looted Antiquities


Antiquities are displayed in the Kabul Museum in Kabul on August 5, 2012. Hundreds of archaeological treasures looted from Afghanistan were returned to the war-torn country's National Museum August 5 after being recovered with the help of the British Museum. Many of the 843 artefacts were seized as they were being smuggled into Britain after some 70 percent of the museum's contents were stolen during Afghanistan's civil war in the early 1990s. AFP PHOTO/ SHAH MARAI (Photo credit should read SHAH MARAI/AFP/GettyImages)
Antiquities are displayed in the Kabul Museum in Kabul on August 5, 2012. Hundreds of archaeological treasures looted from Afghanistan were returned to the war-torn country’s National Museum August 5 after being recovered with the help of the British Museum. Many of the 843 artefacts were seized as they were being smuggled into Britain after some 70 percent of the museum’s contents were stolen during Afghanistan’s civil war in the early 1990s.  AFP PHOTO/ SHAH MARAI GettyImages.

Last year, the world watched in horror as ISIS destroyed key historical sites in Palmyra, Syria. But experts warn it’s not only these high profile acts of destruction that pose the biggest threat to the world’s cultural heritage. Instead, it’s a practice that dates back millennia – tomb raiding. The trade in looted antiquities is big business – and some fear it’s growing due to instability in the Middle East and North Africa. While the U.S. has passed laws restricting imports from Syria and Iraq, many argue little will change until the market for these stolen antiquities is eliminated. New efforts to curb the plunder of the world’s cultural heritage.


  • Gary Vikan former director, Walters Art Museum; author of “Sacred and Stolen: Confessions of a Museum Art Director”
  • Sarah Parcak professor of archaeology, University of Alabama Birmingham; National Geographic Fellow
  • Tess Davis executive director, The Antiquities Coalition
  • Amr Al-Azm professor of history and anthropology, Shawnee State University; former antiquities official in Syria

Full interview here

On trial: the destruction of history during conflict

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On trial: the destruction of history during conflict

From Al Jazeera – August 22, 2016

When the Roman Emperor Jovian ordered the burning of theLibrary of Antiochin the 4th Century AD, there was nobody around to make him answer for what ancient Syrian culture buffs deemed a “barbaric act”, according to records.

Modern history is littered with cases of wartime razing, from the levelling of Dresden to theTaliban’s Buddha-demolition at Bamiyan.Politicians have been slow to crack down on ruinous acts, but experts hope that this month the curve will bend in the right direction.

Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi is expected to plead guilty to war crimes at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague after allegedlydestroying holy and historic sites in Timbuktuas his al-Qaeda-linked group swept across Mali in 2012.

For heritage lovers, it is a watershed moment. The first ICC prosecution(PDF)solely for tearing down monuments will deter other wreckers, such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) group, they say.

“The case sets an important precedent by demonstrating, once again, that these attacks on heritage are really attacks on people,” said Tess Davis, a director ofThe Antiquities Coalition, which seeks to end ISIL-style racketeering.

“We have seen it before, from the Nazis to the Khmer Rouge and the Taliban, and we must end impunity for these crimes.”

READ MORE: ISIL and the history of destroying history

Destroying the history of Timbuktu

The ICC has probed the events in Mali since 2012, when Tuareg rebels seized swaths of the country’s northern deserts and desecrated mosques, shrines and monuments in Timbuktu, aUNESCO World Heritage Site. French and Malian troops pushed them back in 2013.

Accordingto prosecutors,al-Mahdi, a former teacher in his 40s, led an anti-vice squadcalled al-Hesbah, which acted for the Islamic court of Timbuktu, while he was a member of Ansar Dine, a Tuareg rebel group allied with Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

He is accused of directing attacks on nine mausoleums and the Sidi Yahia mosque in Timbuktu, a trade hub that became Islam’s “intellectual and spiritual capital” in Africa in the 15th and 16th centuries, according to UNESCO.

In broad daylight,pickaxe-wielding men toredown mud-brick walls in front of television cameras. Al-Mahdi himselfspoke on screen, using the alias Abu Tourab, to declare the structures “forbidden” under Islam.

Some 4,000 ancient manuscripts were lost, stolen or torched during the group’s reign. ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda decried an “irreplaceable” loss of history “felt by the whole of humanity, and at the expense of future generations”.

Losing the cradle of civilisation

Al-Mahdi, from Agoune, 100km west of Timbuktu, the so-called “City of 333 Saints”, was later detained by officials in neighbouring Niger and handed over to the court in the Netherlands, where he is in custody.

He is expected to plead guilty at the start of a week-long trial, which can be seen online. It will hear from lawyers, expert and character witnesses and a representative of nine victims before its three judges retire to consider the outcome.

If convicted, al-Mahdi faces jail, a fine and reparation payments to victims. Lawyers contacted by Al Jazeera estimated sentences of between four to 10 years, but said it was hard to predict how the ICC would balance the needs of justice in its first plea bargain.

According to heritage buffs, the case is needed now more than ever.

The Middle East hosts many ancient and valued sites.

“In a matter of days, weeks and months we have lost entire chapters of history and sites and objects that had survived for millennia. We are losing so much from the cradle of civilisation on our watch,” said Davis.

ISIL famouslydestroyed The Temple of Beland other sites among the 2,000-year-old ruins of Palmyra, in Syria, and smashed up many statues from the ancient Assyrian era after seizing the Iraqi city of Mosul in 2015.

But less well-known strikes on buildings belonging to Shia Muslims and Yazidis – groups that ISIL views as heretics – are more worrying to Davis, who sees heritage-trashing as a “red flag of an impending genocide”.

According to Lisa Ackerman, an official of the World Monuments Fund charity, heritage destruction in the modern-day Middle East compares to Europe’s intra-Christian violence of the 16th and 17th centuries.

PDF of article here

Shop at AmazonSmile today, save history for tomorrow

Did you know that you could help protect heritage just by shopping on Amazon? That’s right – shopping! Culture is under threat across the globe and the Antiquities Coalition is implementing projects for protecting heritage and developing distinctive research to identify new solutions to this crisis. You can help be a part of the solution to #CultureUnderThreat simply by shopping at AmazonSmile.

By using smile.amazon.com, a portion of your purchase is donated to the Antiquities Coalition. It’s easy to set up and the best part is, it’s free!

So what’s the difference between what’s available on amazon.com versus smile.amazon.com? There is no difference at all, same products, same prices and same service. Using AmazonSmile automatically donates 0.5% of your purchase to the organization. Everything from clothes to cleaning products to collectibles purchased on AmazonSmile can help contribute to protecting our cultural heritage.

Don’t just shop, shop with a purpose, spend on the items you need today to help us save history for tomorrow.

Here’s how it works:


1. Type smile.amazon.com in your web browser:


2. Sign into your Amazon account as usual, the option to select a charity will pop up:


3. After you’ve typed in “Antiquities Coalition” a list of possible matches will come up for you to select the Antiquities Coalition:



4. Let the shopping commence!


Authorization for Monuments Men in Iraq and Syria


Authorization for Monuments Men in Iraq and Syria


In many parts of this vast world, long departed civilizations left rich and enduring tributes to the way people saw their environment, themselves and their legacy.  In a tragic twist of fate, many of these invaluable examples of cultural heritage in Iraq and Syria survived numerous conflicts and unpredictable weather throughout the centuries only to crumble or disappear at the hands of members of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), and others involved in conflict in Iraq and Syria.  These sites are in dire need of additional protection and the United States (U.S.) must increase its efforts.  In addition to U.S. diplomatic initiatives and the enactment of theProtect and Preserve International Cultural Property Act, the U.S. could fulfill its respective United Nationsobligations and the mandates of international law by incorporating the protection of cultural property in anyAuthorization for Military Force (AUMF) passed by the U.S. Congress.  The AUMF provides an opportunity to embed military operations authorized with the responsibility to identify, protect and track cultural property at risk for destruction or trafficking.

Image courtesy of Bernard Gagnon, © 2010.

Military-sanctioned protection of historical sites and artifacts is not new.  During World War II, approximately 345 museum directors, curators, art historians, artists, architects and educators from thirteen countries comprised the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program.  These men and women have become internationally known as the “Monuments Men” and they worked to protect monuments and other cultural treasures from widespread destruction and looting.  The Monuments Men risked their lives traveling with ground troops across war-torn Europe, committed to the concept that the future of peace rests in part on the preservation of the world’s heritage and culture.  Today, a group of professors, archaeologists and undercover volunteers in Syria,  known as the Monuments Men of Syria, are working feverishly with help from institutions like the Penn Museum and the Smithsonian to catalogue treasures in the hope that the artifacts can be tracked down in the future.  Other reporting initiatives are led by groups like the Antiquities Coalition, the Middle East Institute and the Asia Society.  During World War II, the Monuments Men were able to be most effective because they were able to advise Allied commanders on how to conduct missions to avoid destruction of cultural property. Their place at the forefront of mission planning often gave them an advantage over subsequent civilian efforts to track down missing artifacts or restore already destroyed property.

In early February 2015, President Obama submitted a proposed AUMF to combat “ISIL or associated persons or forces.”  In general terms, an AUMF is a President’s request to the U.S. Congress for authority to conduct military operations under certain parameters. Notably, the President’s 2015 AUMF currently contains a clause considered by many to constitute a prohibition of American boots on the ground.  The AUMF is effectively tabled in Congress for the moment while debates rage about its operational scope, mission creep, and any time limits on the use of force. The White House has also stated that its current use of force in Iraq and Syria is still authorized under a 2001 AUMF, but that it seeks Congressional support in order to provide a signal of a united effort to degrade and defeat ISIL.  Any AUMF passed by Congress that provides for some level of authorized military operation in the region should further be committed to and tasked with cultural property protection efforts.  Unfortunately, the President’s AUMF has been effectively delayed in Congress and a new administration may take a different view on whether an AUMF is even necessary.

Protecting the identity, pride, and cultural heritage in Iraq and Syria is integral to any rebuilding process after great physical and psychological devastation and the chaotic upheaval of homes and businesses.  Moreover, the malevolent looting and destruction of cultural property in Iraq and Syria has also been a significant source of funding and propaganda tool for ISIL.  A recent Wall Street Journal report noted that looting (after oil) is ISIL’s second largest source of financing.  In 2013, the U.S. International Trade Commission showed that declared antiquities from Syria increased 134% to $11 million USD.  The value of undeclared artifacts is estimated to be more than $100 million USD a year.

It is time to recognize the need for U.S.-supported Monuments Men in Iraq and Syria precisely because in thewords of Paul Sachs, director of the Fogg Art Museum during World War II, [i]f, in time of peace, our museums and art galleries are important to the community, in time of war they are doubly valuable. For then, when the petty and the trivial fall way and we are face to face with final and lasting values, we must summon to our defense all our intellectual and spiritual resources. We must guard jealously all we have inherited from a long past, all we are capable of creating in a trying present, and all we are determined to preserve in a foreseeable future.”  In light of the continued, rampant destruction and looting in the region, an AUMF that authorizes military force in Iraq and Syria to combat ISIL should include resources, similar to the Monuments Men of World War II, committed to the protection of cultural heritage because Paul Sachs’ declaration still rings true today.

PDF of article here

The Potential Dark Side of China’s Art and Antiquities Boom


China has come to dominate the art and antiquities market. Now it must take up the burden of protecting these treasures.

By Deborah Lehr and Katie Paul

August 12, 2016

Taikang Insurance’s investment in Sotheby’s auction house solidifies China’s position as the world’s largest market for arts and antiquities. It is ironic that Taikang’s head, Chen Dongsheng, grandson-in-law of Chairman MaoZedong, would invest in a 270 year-old firm that is synonymous with bourgeois decadence.

For Chen, the visionary CEO of Taikang and founder of China’s second largest auction house, culture is a highly profitable business. As other Chinese companies follow his lead, China will become the primary destination for the world’s culture. China is taking on the mantle of custodian of the world’s heritage — as such, it must establish itself as a responsible stakeholder in safeguarding our shared history.

In Mao’s era, culture was simply a means of propaganda to brainwash the masses. Mao said that “literature and art fit well into the whole revolutionary machine… they operate as powerful weapons for uniting and educating the people.” Culture was a means to promote the party, and the Ministry of Propaganda controlled all aspects of the “industry” – newspapers, films, TV and, of course, art.

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How times have changed. In 2009, the Chinese government designated “culture” as a strategic industry. Today, China is on track to dominate this vast and profitable industry. Nowhere is that rise more apparent than in the art market.

In part a reaction to China’s economic slowdown, President Xi Jinping has actively encouraged Chinese companies to invest overseas. In 2016, investments are expected to hit record levels of between $20- $30 billion in the United States alone. These are up from just $11.9 billion two years previously.

Chinese collectors are newcomers to the fine arts world, but as is often the case with China, collecting has caught on in a big way quickly. Even though China only recently opened its door to foreign auction houses, it has rapidly become the largest art market in the world, just ahead of the United States and the United Kingdom. And it continues to boom. While the two art market capitals of the world — New York and London — were down last year by 49 percent and 30 percent respectively, acquisitions by Chinese collectors rose almost 20 percent.

A large part of this jump is due to government policy. In an effort to compete with the great cities of the world, all of which have internationally renowned museums, China has gone on a building spree. The government hit its goal of building 3,500 of these symbols of stature by 2012, three years ahead of schedule, and continues to build museums at a record pace. Additional private museums built by the newfound wealthy class in China are also springing up across the country.  In contrast, the United States establishes about 20-30 new museums a year. Yet China still has a long way to go to catch up with the United States, which has over 35,000 museums.

China’s opportunity — and challenge — is that its new museums needs to be filled. And there are simply not enough Chinese domestic art and antiquities to meet this demand. Logically, overseas collections will be in high pursuit by the museums, collectors, dealers, and auction houses.

Today, six of the top ten global auction houses in the world are Chinese. Chen Dongsheng, who modeled his own auction house, China Guardian, after Sotheby’s, is the logical man to set high standards for collecting, especially in verifying the authenticity and legitimacy of what his firm sells. In addition to founding China Guardian, Chen’s investment makes Taikang Insurance Sotheby’s largest shareholder.

There is concern that others will not follow Taikang’s example. The crisis in the Middle East and the use of antiquities trafficking by violent extremist organizations to fund their terrorism has led to a proliferation of conflict antiquities on the market. Demand countries such as the United States and Europe have taken steps to close their markets to these conflict antiquities. Given the rapidly growing demand of the Chinese market for antiquities, increasingly including those from the Middle East, China could become a major source of terrorist financing if strict standards for acquisition are not upheld.

State-owned auction houses such as Poly International, the world’s third largest auction house after Sotheby’s and Christie’s, must guarantee a world-class verification process to ensure the legitimacy of the antiquities that they are selling, particularly those coming from countries in conflict. Poly International is a division of the Poly Group Corporation, one of the world’s largest arms traders. The corporation has a history of past transgressions, have been recently sanctioned by the United States for illegal arms shipments in violation of the Iran, North Korea, and Syria Nonproliferation Act.

As China positions itself as a world-renowned center of art and culture, it should take a strong stand against antiquities looting and trafficking, particularly from countries in conflict. China knows only too well the impact of having its cherished history looted and destroyed. Even today, China is seeking to repatriate antiquities looted by French and British troops from the Old Summer Palace in the 1860s. Banning the purchase of conflict antiquities will do more to establish China’s authority in the world of art than any monumental edifice filled with exquisite, but stolen property.

Deborah Lehr is Chairman and Founder of The Antiquities Coalition.

Katie Paul is Chief of Staff, The Antiquities Coalition.

PDF of article here

Introducing the Digital Library of the Middle East

Introducing the Digital Library of the Middle East

By: Peter Herdrich

In the winter of 2015, ISIL brought its campaign of terror to the Mosul Museum, launching their devastating attack with sledgehammers and power drills. For readers of the Ancient Near East Today, that paroxysm of violence is indelibly burned in our memories, made even more devastating by the searing video evidence. What many of us remember less well is another spasm of destruction in Mosul. Along with the attack on the Museum, militants looted and destroyed the libraries of Mosul, burning books, manuscripts, and other bibliographical material. As in Mali and Bosnia before, the difference between the collections in a library and museum didn’t make much difference to terrorists with a destructive agenda.

The desire to more thoroughly secure collections of all kinds is one of the primary motivations behind a new project developed by the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) and the Antiquities Coalition, the Digital Library of the Middle East (DLME). The DLME proposes a large-scale digital library that would encompass online collections of material relating to the cultures of the Middle East.

The library will provide an internationally shared inventory of cultural artifacts including detailed descriptions and image documentation on a single website with coherent metadata and search facilities. Images and descriptions could be made publicly available to encourage greater understanding of and respect for the region’s cultural patrimony. Object-specific data would confirm ownership and legal status and would help determine whether an item of cultural or historical significance being offered for sale or transferred was acquired illegally. And the study will address bringing uncatalogued, undescribed, and undocumented collections online by providing funding, capacity building, and expertise – a possible extension of the Hidden Collections program for which CLIR is justly renowned. For both bibliographical and museum collections, the DLME seeks to improve security, provide access, aid in combatting the illicit trade, and encourage modern inventory and documentation standards for at risk collections.

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has generously provided funding to support exploratory research, community building, and technical prototyping for the DLME. Dr. Charles Henry of CLIR and I will serve as co-Principal Investigators on the project. Media and digital arts producer Neil Sieling is lead research analyst, and Elizabeth Waraksa, program director for research and strategic initiatives at the Association of Research Libraries, will serve as consultant to the project. We will also benefit from significant contributions from the Digital Library Federation, the Digital Public Library of America, and the National Digital Stewardship Alliance.

These goals are firmly mission-based for both the Antiquities Coalition and CLIR. Dr. Henry joined ASOR as one of the earliest supporters of the Antiquities Coalition, and as a leader in the world of digital libraries, sees the great potential benefit in the DLME. “All technologies, including the construction of digital inventories of the cultural artifacts of the Middle East region that will form the core of the Digital Library of the Middle East, are means to express and foster core human values,” Dr. Henry explains. “The DLME is envisioned as both a technical marvel but also a virtual place that facilitates social justice and provides a sustained, evolving platform for worldwide access as a public good. The crisis in the Middle East is urgent and heartbreaking; our immediate goals are to construct a digital library that will inhibit looting, track material objects of cultural significance and help to safeguard one of the world’s greatest cultural repositories. Over time, we hope for peace, when the DLME can engage a new generation of scholars and readers who can gaze anew on such stunning evidence of our collective human achievement.”

For many with backgrounds in archaeology and cultural heritage preservation, the chance to safeguard objects is critical and in the DLME, inventories are a principal means to security. The importance of inventories is enshrined in the 1999 Second Protocol of Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. Article 5 -Safeguarding of cultural property states, “Preparatory measures taken in time of peace for the safeguarding of cultural property against the foreseeable effects of an armed conflict pursuant to Article 3 of the Convention shall include, as appropriate, the preparation of inventories.” Unfortunately, uninventoried and undocumented collections are common across the Middle East and this creates a serious issue of risk management. To protect what you have, you first must know what you have.

With the Antiquities Coalition’s focus on implementing on-the-ground solutions, the promotion of databases and documentation fits our organizational mission – as a basic step toward the protection of so much cultural heritage material. This Antiquities Coalition infographic illustrates how inventories and databases contribute to safeguarding cultural material.

Over the course of our study grant, we will assess initiatives that will increase the value of the Digital Library of the Middle East. We will form Advisory and Steering Committees, dedicated in our commitment to partnership with local experts, academic colleagues, government and diplomatic officials, and librarians. We will study peer-to-peer cooperation between library and archaeological professionals, between Research 1 universities and libraries and their counterparts in the Middle East and North Africa, and possible crowdsourcing of cataloguing and description of collections.

A Technology Advisory Committee will be created, and documentation best practices will be considered for bibliographical and material culture, along with next generation documentation efforts based on photogrammetry, 3D scanning, and immersive virtual reality. And we will consider the critical issue of financial sustainability and administrative organization. A digital library must consider its business plan and how it will carry its mission responsibly into the future.

Finally, we believe that paramount to our success is partnership. We seek to know about collections that would like to be part of the library, especially in the Middle East; about people willing to lend expertise in order to build capacity and improve online collections; and about overseas colleagues who would provide leadership from the discipline area. Please reach out to us if you’d like to help.

A successful Digital Library of the Middle East will present the stories of a diverse group of people whose culture is often misunderstood. We need to look no further than the Cradle of Civilization to understand how important these stories are. The origins of agriculture, towns, and writing provide testimony to our interconnectedness and to the value that our shared heritage has to people the world over. We believe that presenting the sweep of the history and culture of the Middle East stands to reaffirm our shared humanity. And that understanding is at the heart of any library or museum.

Peter Herdrich is a regular contributor to the Ancient Near East Today and is Co-Founder of the Antiquities Coalition. He is reachable at pherdrich@theantiquitiescoalition.org.

PDF of article here