Amid jihadi gains, priceless Iraqi artefacts hit black market

Tue Sep 30, 2014 9:57am EDT
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By John Irish

PARIS (Reuters) - Ancient Iraqi artefacts are appearing on the black market as Islamic State militants use intermediaries to sell priceless treasures to finance their activities after sweeping through the north of the country, Iraqi and Western officials said.

The militants gained some experience of dealing in antiquities after taking control of large parts of Syria, but when they captured the northern Iraqi city of Mosul and the Nineveh province in June, they gained access to almost 2,000 of Iraq's 12,000 registered archaeological sites.

Mesopotamia, part of modern-day Iraq, was among the earliest civilizations. Its name in Greek means "between the rivers", a reference to the Tigris and Euphrates rivers that made it a rich center for agriculture, trade and a crossroads of civilizations.

The site of Nineveh and Babylon, whose hanging gardens were one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the land was home to the Sumerians who gave the world cuneiform -- the earliest form of Western writing -- around 3100 BC.

Speaking at a conference at the U.N. cultural agency UNESCO in Paris to warn of the risk to Iraq's heritage, Qais Hussein Rasheed, head of the Baghdad Museum, said organized groups were working in coordination with Islamic State.

"It's an international artefacts' mafia," he told reporters. "They identify the items and say what they can sell," he said. Since some of these items were more than 2,000 years old it was difficult to know exactly their value.

Citing local officials still in Islamic State-controlled areas, Rasheed said the biggest example of looting so far had taken place at the 9th century B.C. grand palace at Kalhu of the Assyrian King Ashurnasirpal II.

"Assyrian tablets were stolen and found in European cities," he said. "Some of these items are cut up and sold piecemeal," he said, referring to a tablet of a winged bull.   Continued...