Many people feel as if the COVID-19 pandemic is stealing their present and endangering their future. But this unprecedented global public health emergency is also accelerating the destruction of our past, one at a time. In fact, the pandemic has intensified the theft and trafficking of antiquities and historical manuscripts, eroding our collective memory and our ability to share with future generations.
Although the theft of cultural relics has been a problem since ancient times, the rate of theft has accelerated during the pandemic, especially in the heritage-rich regions of the Middle East and North Africa. Due to the pandemic, many societies are still in a forced standstill, and predators and smugglers are razing ancient ruins to the ground. In Egypt alone, the number of illegally excavated cultural relics has more than doubled in 2020.
It is difficult to estimate the exact size and monetary value of the illegal antiquities market. According to the book “Stealing History” published in 2020 by Roger Atwood, its annual value may be between 300 million and 6 billion US dollars. UNESCO reports that the illicit trade in cultural products-including antique trafficking-is worth 10 billion U.S. dollars a year. As we all know, some of these profits are used to finance conflict and global terrorism.
Between 2010 and 2014, there was a significant increase in the trade in illegal cultural relics in the Levant, largely due to the ongoing conflict. According to the Antiquities Trafficking and Anthropology of Heritage Research (ATHAR) project, which investigates and records the digital underworld trafficking in looted cultural relics, the pace of such activities in the Middle East and North Africa has further accelerated during the pandemic.
The increase in antiquities theft and smuggling is caused by several interrelated reasons. First, the smuggling of cultural relics provides a much-needed source of income for those who lost their jobs during the pandemic. Second, due to the COVID-19 lockdown and budget constraints, the authorities have relaxed their surveillance of archaeological sites and museums, making them more vulnerable to theft and robbery. Third, many human traffickers managed to take advantage of the rise of the digital economy during the pandemic. In fact, online illegal trade in looted antiquities has surged after the pandemic hit. Today, these items are not only widely sold on the dark web, but also on popular social media platforms.
Smuggling of cultural relics is not the exclusive domain of terrorist organizations and organized criminal networks. Known and unknowing collectors and auction houses, local poor and tourists also contributed to this theft. Therefore, all of us, civil society, businesses, governments, and international organizations must mobilize to protect our past.
The antique market is driven by supply and demand. Antiquities are sold in both legal and illegal markets. There is also a gray market where artifacts of unknown origin or missing documents are sold. It is not always easy to distinguish these markets, but it is something we must do to protect us in the past.
We can take some practical steps in the short term, such as training border officials to help them distinguish between genuine and counterfeit goods, electronically marking all cultural relics, promoting more transparent auctions, and imposing harsher penalties on traffickers.
For a long time, people have been calling for a global policy to combat cultural relics trafficking.
However, the existing framework lacks an implementation mechanism and does not take into account technological developments such as digital commerce. Therefore, we must formulate an enforceable agreement that conforms to the realities of the 21st century. Since the smuggling of cultural relics has moved online, we must cooperate with digital markets, social media platforms, and payment processing companies. According to UNESCO’s basic action against illegal online sales of cultural relics, the conclusion of a binding agreement is a good starting point.
Education is also a key tool in the fight against trafficking in cultural relics, because too many groups are still unaware of this challenge and its impact. Debate is necessary because not all participants agree on the way forward. It is through initiatives such as the Himaya Project jointly led by the National Library of Qatar, UNESCO, Interpol and the World Customs Organization that we can combat trafficking in cultural relics and manuscripts. These projects and initiatives can help us raise awareness, help others realize the importance of heritage projects, open public debates around their protection, and decide how to better protect them.
Controlling the trafficking of heritage materials across the Middle East and North Africa is a daunting task, but if we work together, it is possible. National libraries, museums, international organizations, and civil society groups must continue to work together to raise awareness and promote binding rules to address this serious threat to the country and people’s historical rights.
In 2015, the then-U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated that “every ancient handicraft contains rich memories and rich meaning, which reminds us of a story that we cannot lose”. What he said was right at the time, and it is still right today. We cannot ignore the trafficking of cultural relics and manuscripts. Without them, we will always lose part of our collective past. If history is stolen, who will release history?
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.