UMM EL-JIMAL, Jordan — The tomb-raiders no longer even wait for night to fall before they loot the ancient crypts.
In recent weeks, grave robbers here dug into 2,000-year-old tombs right in front of a house rented by archaeologists. Dozens of shallow pits now mark the spot. The field is littered with cracked, carved stones that once covered the dead.
"They did this in broad daylight," said Muaffaq Hazza, project archaeologist at Umm el-Jimal, known as the Gem of the Black Desert, one of the best-studied and protected archaeological projects in Jordan. "There is no shame."
In Jordan, there is a long tradition of "treasure hunting." But the gold fever driving a surge in tomb-raiding in the Hashemite Kingdom is the worst in years. No one knows exactly how they started, but rumours have been flying from rough kebab shops to fancy dinner parties — of buried treasure, of Ottoman gold and Byzantine jewels, of jars heavy with Roman coins.
It sounds nutty. But it is destroying Jordan's rich cultural heritage, piece by piece, one looted Bronze-era funerary relic at a time.
The looters are not only looking for gold, but for ceramics, glassware, lamps, masonry and bits of jewellery, all of which quickly find their way into the global antiquities trade. Once grave-robbers disturb a site, it becomes impossible for archaeologists to bring order to the finds. It is as if someone had pressed the "delete" button in one of most archaeologically rich countries on Earth.
How bad is the gold fever? Late last month, Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour called an extraordinary news conference to dispel rumours that an area around the city of Aljoun, which had been declared off-limits by the military, was a treasure find.
People assumed the late-night explosions and mysterious excavations meant the buried riches of Alexander the Great had finally been unearthed. Looters — and whole families of enthusiasts — descended on the area. Taxi drivers in Amman confidently told visiting journalists the booty was worth billions.
Turns out it wasn't treasure at all that the Jordan military was digging for, but Israeli spy equipment buried there in 1969, during the War of Attrition. The news conference did little to break the fever.
"You hear these ridiculous stories all the time, how someone found enough gold to buy a block of apartments in Amman," Hazza said.
Hazza was born and raised at the edge of the Umm el-Jimal's walled city, which was occupied in waves by Nabateans, Romans and Byzantines between the 1st and 8th centuries. It was laid to waste by an earthquake in A.D. 749.
"Every night, there is digging here now," he said. "In the morning, men in Hummers come to buy what they find."
Hazza thought about the absurdity of that image for a moment. "It's like a drive-through," he said, searching for an American metaphor.
Imagine what damage a tomb-raider like Indiana Jones could do. Now imagine that Indy has a lot of underemployed cousins with pneumatic drills and a basic knowledge of archaeology.
"We are facing big problems. Every week, every day, we get a telephone call saying, 'They're digging again,' or the police saying they have captured some artefacts," said Monther Dahash Jamhawi, general director of the Hashemite Kingdom's Department of Antiquities.
Jamhawi said scholars estimate there are more than 100,000 archaeological sites in Jordan, some 20,000 of which have been documented. But only a few have guards, the very same guards who may indulge in off-hours pillaging, he said.
"We are faced with amateurs who possess some knowledge, who have some talent. They know where artifacts may lie and what their values are," Jamhawi said. Some, he said, learned how to find graves while working as excavators for professional archaeologists.
These thieves target archaeological sites and may conspire with shadowy middle men, who employ consultants to apprise the values of, say, a burnished redware pot from the late Roman period or a 7th-century Umayyad painted jar.
Years ago the culprits sold to museums. Since Jordan passed an antiquities law in 1988, things have tightened up some. Now they sell to private collectors — not just easily smuggled trinkets, like a pair of earrings from a Byzantine tomb, but Greek-inscribed tombstones weighing hundreds of pounds.
The middlemen sell to some of the most influential families in Amman, experts say. They launder antiquities — often with dubious documents of authenticity — through dealers in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, then onto the international auction houses, to satisfy a global demand for "biblical objects."
Jamhawi said he was recently shown a pair of Roman-era capitals, the carved stone that sits at the top of columns, that a family in Amman wanted to register. The owners told him the pieces were an inheritance, conveniently collected before Jordan's antiquities law was passed.
"Of course this claim was highly dubious," Jamhawi said.
Fascinated by the trade, Morag Kersel, an archaeologist at DePaul University in Chicago, and colleagues recently launched the "Follow the Pots Project," to track how antiquities in Jordan are purloined and where they go.
"What is driving the looting is demand," she said, coupled with high unemployment and the regional upheaval that has further fed the marketplace for black-market antiquities.
Iraq was stripped of ancient relics in the decade of unrest that followed the U.S. invasion in 2003. Similarly, Islamic State militants are now funding their caliphate with "blood antiquities" from Syria.
Kersel and her team have flown a drone over archaeological sites to take photographs. The aerial images are striking. In Fifa, by the Dead Sea, the area looks like it has been very thoroughly, very neatly, bombed. There are more than 10,000 tombs looted.
Raiders have hit Umm el-Jimal equally hard. Archaeologists count as many as 5,000 tombs plundered. In fields just outside the fence are row after row of conical dirt piles, each one beside a gutted grave.
"Why are they digging and digging and digging when I know their chance of finding anything is almost zero?" asked Bert de Vries, lead archaeologist at Umm el-Jimal and a professor emeritus at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich.
"There's always the next time," he said, answering his own question. "There's always the chance that the next shovel down, they will hear the clink, and they think it will be a box of gold."
Mohammad Abu Khader is a 50-year-old day labourer in Umm el-Jimal. Earlier this month, he was burrowing in a neighbour's back yard.
"We dug for 17 nights," he said.
Then he saw it.
"The tops of three jars," he said, nervously, but sticking to his story. The jars were capped with blue stones he assumes were precious gems. There was strange writing, and what appeared to be an entrance to a secret passageway.
Then Khader went to go have cup of tea — and the jars vanished.
"I was so close," he said. "Then the treasure was snatched from my hands."
Later he swore on a Koran before the local imam of what he had seen. It matters not that the story is fanciful, because people believe it.
The new mayor of Umm el-Jimal, Hassan Al Rahibh, is working hard to spruce up the town, plant palm trees and provide a little infrastructure — maybe a restaurant and a guesthouse — for pilgrims who may want to visit the ruins of 27 Byzantine churches on the site.
He's heard all the stories.
"You combine unemployment and ignorance and this is what happens," the mayor said. "In reality there is no treasure."
And yet — the mayor lit a cigarette and began his own story. He has a cousin, you see. Who was digging. Just eight months ago. Who found a golden cross, he said. A big one. Very old, very valuable.
There was a little glint in the mayor's eye.
William Booth and Taylor Luck – The Washington Post
Photo by Warrick Page for The Washington Post