We have watched with horror for the past four years as sites built by our ancestors across the Middle East, some over 6000 years old, have been needlessly looted and destroyed as a sign of intolerance of different beliefs. In a time of crisis, some argue, a choice must be made between saving lives and saving culture. But that is a false choice.
Heritage is an essential element of who we are – as a people and as individuals; who are we without music, a common history, traditions, our literature as well as our relics, religious and archaeological sites that unite us. As groups like ISIL cross Iraq and Syria, these terrorists realize that attacking heritage is a means to break the spirit of a population.
Irina Bokova, Director General of UNESCO, has eloquently noted that to counter religious extremism, acceptance of our diverse past, our culture, must be a part of any effective peace building strategy. Those who believe in freedom of expression and religion should understand her message.
It is not just the terrorists who are trafficking in these illicit antiquities. Organized criminal gangs are profiting from wide scale and systematic looting – or cultural racketeering. The FBI notes that this global crime benefits criminals in the billions of dollars every year. These operatives run global networks from Bulgaria to Shanghai, from Bogota to Jerusalem, and Istanbul to Tokyo.
The United States is one of the top destinations in the world for these “blood” antiquities. They are in the auction houses, in private collections and on the Internet.
The Antiquities Coalition is a non-partisan not-for-profit that brings together a diverse group of dedicated experts who have joined together to battle against this crime.