Inside the Underground Trade to Sell Off Syria's History

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tags: ISIS, ISIL, Ancient Artifacts

A fine white dust covered Mohamed’s bare feet as he stepped onto the ancient mosaic. It had been rolled up in an old carpet, its hundreds of stone pieces glued in place on an elastic sheet. Unfurling the carpet released the smell of earth into the humid air.

Dust coated the mosaic too, obscuring a scene rendered by an unknown artist from antiquity. “Put some water here,” Mohamed said, clicking the trigger on a spray bottle. “It will become clear.”

A man’s face appeared on the stones. He wore a crown and sat upon a throne. Mohamed sprayed water to the right and there was a soldier, leading a prisoner with bound hands. The king held his palm above the prisoner, passing judgment. “First look at the eyes,” Mohamed said, his bottle still clicking. “You will think they are real and they have souls.”

Looters found the mosaic in Syria, in the floor of an ancient villa buried underground. First they covered it with elastic glue and, using a rubber hammer, tapped the pieces into place. When the glue set they peeled the mosaic from the floor. Then they rolled it into the carpet and smuggled it across the border into Turkey, where Mohamed, a black-market antiquities dealer in his mid-thirties, hid it in his home.

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