The number of historical artifacts seized by Turkish authorities rose tenfold last year compared to 2013, latest figures reveal. The conflict in neighboring Syria, where historical sites have been the target of looting and demolition, has aggravated the smuggling. A total of 1,042 artifacts were confiscated at the Turkish border en route to the country, possibly to be sold to Turkish buyers or buyers from other countries. In 2013, only 112 artifacts were captured by Turkish authorities on the border.
The substantial rise in the seizure of smuggled artifacts is linked to the heightened conflict in Syria, where a state of lawlessness plays into the hands of smugglers who exploit the situation to smuggle artifacts and other items, ranging from fuel to cigarettes both from Syria and to Syria from Turkey.
Operation Odysseus, coordinated by the World Customs Organization in cooperation with Turkish authorities, also helps combat artifact smuggling.
The Turkish Directorate of Customs Guards elevated measures against smuggling with an improved training program for its staff and electronic tracking and monitoring systems on the borders. Turkey also cooperates with Interpol, which offers a comprehensive database of artifacts reported stolen and missing.
The Cilvegözü border crossing between Turkey and Syria is among the main hubs used by smugglers hiding artifacts in cars. Double checkpoints set up on the border for X-ray scanning and manual searches of those entering Turkey help curb smuggling activities. But smugglers have now increasingly turned to operating via sea. Thus, the Turkish Ministry of Customs has stepped up its inspection of vessels and boats with Syrian crews.
As for the first seven months of 2015, only 23 artifacts smuggled into Turkey have been recovered so far according to statistics.
Artifact smuggling is regarded as a lucrative income source for the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). The U.N. Security Council banned all trade in antiquities from Syria earlier this year. The council stated that ISIS and others were generating income from engaging directly or indirectly in the looting and smuggling of cultural heritage items to support their recruitment efforts and strengthen their operational capability.
Turkey's Minister of Culture and Tourism head Ömer Çelik earlier reaffirmed Turkey's firm stance on artifacts smuggled from Syria, which has grown substantially since the conflict broke out in that country four years ago. Çelik said collectors and private and state museums were cooperating with security forces against the smuggling.
The country shares a 915-kilometer border with Syria. Since the conflict broke out, smuggling from that country has also escalated, although it is largely concentrated on oil smuggling. On a number of occasions, large groups of armed smugglers have clashed with Turkish security forces at the border.
Artifact smugglers on the other hand are less organized. Although media reports point to a network of smugglers facilitating the transportation of artifacts from ISIS-controlled areas, most are looters who enter Turkey by simply hiding artifacts in their belongings, mingling with displaced Syrians taking shelter in Turkey. ISIS controls several historically rich areas of Syria. Most recently, the group captured Palmyra, an ancient city where settlement dates back to the Neolithic age, and temples as well as Roman-era structures still survive.