How Artefacts Fund The ISIS Machine

When Abu Sayyaf, a senior leader of ISIS, was killed in a raid back in May 2015, documents were recovered which shed light on the systematic exploitation of archaeological sites as a source of income for the group. 

It was discovered that a system of taxation, based off the Islamic tradition of khums, was put in place in which the group allowed local people to dig archaeological sites in return for a slice of the profit.

This levy reportedly differed regionally and as much as 50% would be demanded in Raqqa, near Aleppo, for artefacts which were made from precious metals.

As well as this, the group would issue permits to semi-professional groups to excavate well known sites under supervision.

In Abu Sayyaf’s documents, his area alone made a profit $1.25 million between 2014-2015.

Clearly the destruction of such ‘idols’ is not the sole motivator for ISIS to operate on ancient sites; the events at Palmyra and at the Mosul Museum (seen below) two such examples.

Syria is home to six UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and pretty much all six of them have fallen foul to plunder.

Both Syria and Iraq have losses in cultural heritage. Attempts are currently being made to create digital replications of sites under threat and piece together already destroyed sites from photographs. But despite this, the destruction and plunder of these heritage sites and museums casts an inescapable long shadow in to the future.


Located on the Orontes River in Syria, Apamea was founded in 300 BC by one of Alexander the Great’s successors and founder of the Seleucid Kingdom Seleucus Nicator. Named after his wife, it became a major Hellenistic city and one of the most important in the kingdom.

Famed for its 2km long Roman Colonnade (seen below) it was a major tourist attraction before the start of civil war in 2011. It then became the centre of fighting where the nearby medieval fortress of Qalaat al-Madiq was shelled by the Syrian Army as rebel troops held it.

Great Colonnade, Apamea (source)
Attack on Qalaat al-Madiq 2011 (source video)

Between 2011-2013 Apamea was heavily contested between state and rebel forces. A UN investigation report in 2013 concluded its satellite assessment by stating that most locations within Apamea had been heavily looted during this time. The main source of information of the state of ancient sites in these war-zones are satellite imagery.

Below is a comparison of satellite images of Apamea from 2011 to today.


The pot-marked surface reveals that looting has been thorough. Artefacts from this site were illicitly listed on online marketplaces.

Following outcry in the media concerning the discovery of the ‘blood antiquity’ trade from Syria and Iraq, imports of such artefacts were banned in western countries. But with the proliferation of false documentation and fakes this has been difficult to police.

Maamoun Abdulkarim, the General Director of Antiquities and Museums in Damascus, has stated as much as 70% of Syrian artefacts seized today are forgeries and not genuine.

ISIS is not alone in looting as all sides in the current conflict, the state included, have taken part in looting ancient sites. It has been argued that this illicit antiquities trade has been the second highest source of income for ISIS behind the oil trade, generating anywhere between a few to 200 million US Dollars per annum.

In truth these numbers are not accurate and it would be difficult to validate them.

With the increasing numbers of forgeries, lack of both financial documentation and access to the sites at risk, it will be potentially years until we understand the full extent of this trade.






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