Alexander and ISIS
Recently, I attended my state’s historic preservation conference as part of my new job. One of the presentations I attended was given by a man working for UNESCO, the UN’s cultural and educational arm, on ISIS and its current participation in the illegal antiquities trade. It was simultaneously an extremely interesting and disturbing talk that taught me a lot of things that I was unaware of and that bear sharing here.
You may be asking how ISIS has anything to do with Alexander, or like me originally, you would assume any ISIS having to do with him would be of the Egyptian goddess variety. However, I am, in this case, referring to the current terrorist organization rampaging throughout the Middle East. Again you may be asking yourself, “what do Arabs and Islam have to do with Alexander?” The Middle East (especially Iraq)=Ancient Persian Empire=Empire Alexander conquered=Alex’s stomping grounds. See the connection now?
Current estimates place the sale of illegal antiquities as the second- or third-highest source of funding for ISIS, and it is not just random looting. ISIS has created and operates a highly organized system of looting and sale. Major sites are looted by ISIS troops upon take-over, often before being destroyed to further the group’s public image as cultural cleansers. ISIS, likewise, encourages the local populations to search for and gather artifacts to use as payment for the hefty taxes ISIS imposes.
These artifacts are collected in holding camps where auctions are then held on a regular basis. When a large enough assembly of artifacts are collected, lists of available items are posted on the internet with details for the auctions. ISIS demands immediate payment for all items then leaves it to the buyer to get them out of the auction locations, usually spot in Syria along the Turkish border.
Current estimates believe that as much as $100 million dollars of antiquities leave Iraq illegally each year since conflict began in that country. The UN has unanimously passed Resolution 2199 pledging to protect the region’s cultural heritage through coordinated efforts among its signatory bodies. Text of that document can be found here http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0023/002321/232164e.pdf . Several countries of the Middle East have made further promises in a recent declaration signed in Cairo the text of which can be found here http://www.mei.edu/sites/default/files/publications/CairoDeclaration.pdf
Looting and the destruction of cultural artifacts is nothing new when it comes to war. Some would accuse Alexander’s army of doing much the same as it marched through the Persian Empire. My love for Alexander in no way makes me condone looting or seizing or however you wish to phrase such actions. But my love for Alexander makes this an important issue for me.
I have never been a big fan of Islamic art or even Persian, Assyrian, or Babylonian art. So at first, I was only a little sad as I think the destruction of any historical item or information is a great loss to humanity. Then it suddenly occurred to me that artifacts and information related to Alexander could be lost, or even more importantly (to me anyway), related to the already elusive Hephaestion could be lost forever.
While UNESCO has made important steps as seen by these documents, problems remain. As ISIS has proven, money=power. Due to some past political issues and laws passed to deal with those issues that have remained on the books beyond their need, the United States stopped paying its UNESCO dues in 2011 following the acceptance of Palestine into UNESCO with full membership rights. This caused an immediately 22% budget cut for UNESCO directly affecting its ability to put boots on the ground to combat the illegal antiquities trade.
I don’t intend to make this blog a political column or an attempt to convert people to a certain world view. This issue, however, it think will be of importance to those of us who are Alexandrophiles. What action you choose to take or not take is entirely up to you. I just offer the information for your consideration and encourage to read for your own on the internet to form your own opinion.
I also apologize for any errors or lack of sense in this hastily written post. I have been unwell but didn’t want to put this off any longer.