Modern-Day ‘Monuments Men’ Work to Save Biblical-Era Artifacts from ISIS

Image: Interpol
Image: Interpol

ISIS has become one of the world’s best-funded terrorist groups, earning most of its profits by selling seized oil. But details keep emerging of the estimated No. 2 source of its billion-dollar revenue stream: looting biblical-era artifacts.

The group often destroys statues and other objects it deems idolatrous. Last month, ISIS bulldozed the ancient city of Nimrod, prompting the senior editor of the New York Review of Books to call for military protection of archeological sites. Italy’s culture minister and Iraq’s tourism and antiquities minister have advanced similar proposals.

But thousands of potentially lucrative archaeological sites are now under ISIS control. The resulting looting has given rise to the term “blood antiquities.” A parallel to Africa’s “blood diamonds,” where mines in a war zone are looted to finance military operations, ancient artifacts are helping to fund ISIS’s reign of terror.

“ISIS is very savvy, very alert to economics,” said Columba Stewart, executive director at St. John’s University’s Hill Museum and Manuscript Library. His team has been taking digital photographs of Christian artifacts in the Middle East for 12 years.

Most of the contents in Syria’s 34 national museums were transported to safe havens, United Nations officials reported last February. Still, the remaining museum pieces—or worse, uncatalogued items in archaeological sites—are at risk.

Enter the US Committee of the Blue Shield, the subject of George Clooney’s WWII movie The Monuments Men. Along with training the US military on how to protect cultural heritage during armed conflict, the committee also trains and teaches foreign museum staff who are trying to protect endangered artifacts, said member Corine Wegener.

“We teach various emergency methods for protection and evacuation,” she said. Last summer, the committee trained 14 Syrian archaeologists and museum professionals who risked their lives both to attend the training and to hide museum artifacts.

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SOURCE: Christianity Today
Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra and Gordon Govier