As war has made regular work scarce, Ayham has trafficked in anything that has a buyer. But lately he says the face of the black market has started to change.
On his cell phone, Ayham shows pictures of the archaeological treasures: a gold Byzantine cross, a statue of Alexander the Great, and another one of the Virgin Mary. Are these objects really priceless wonders, dug up by Syrian tomb raiders to be sold on the black market in Turkey?
“These are pale copies,” declares a rich merchant from Istanbul who’d come to the Syrian border to do business.
With a trace of anger, Ayham snaps back: “I know the man who found these objects, and I trust him.” But the antique dealer remains unconvinced, and leaves.
Ayham has plenty of experience in trafficking along the Turkish-Syrian border. Before smuggling archaeological objects, he was involved in the traffic of guns, oil, cigarettes and even flour. He also smuggled people, helping refugees to cross the border into Turkey, and foreign jihadists into Syria.
He had formed a crew with two associates, but it all ended when his friend Ahmed took off with their money. “We had managed to gather $15,000, but we got robbed by armed bandits,” Ayham explains, recalling how Ahmed then ran off with the rest of the savings, returning to his home in the Syrian port city of Latakia.
And now it is impossible for Ayham to return to Latakia, where Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime still holds absolute control. “They have been looking for me since the beginning of the revolt,” he says, gazing off at the sky. “If I try to cross a checkpoint, I’ll get arrested.”
Arms and cigarette trafficking brought Ayham much of his money. “Most of the weapons were sold by corrupt army officers,” he says. “I used to carry them wherever there were people who would buy them. But for the past six months, the jihadists took control of the traffic and imposed their laws. Small traffickers aren’t safe anymore.”
Ayham doesn’t feel bad about looting archaeological sites. “Everybody does it. The basement of every katiba (military camp) is searched. Plus, a lot of sites have not yet been dug up. You just need to search in the right place, and you can find statues, pots and coins.” He notes that Turkish customs officials are very strict if antiquities are carried out of Turkey, but they turn a blind eye on Syrian objects smuggled into their country.
Indeed, word has spread that smuggling antiquities is the route to easy money these days. But Ayham is not a professional in the field, and is ready to believe that every old and shiny object is made of gold. So as potential buyers and sellers pass, he keeps throwing out different numbers. He asks a thousand dollars for the statues, and millions for the cross.
“What can I do to survive? It has become impossible to do legal business in Syria if you are not part of an armed group,” he explains. “In Turkey, the big dealers are making money, but they also leave some for small traffickers like me.”
Ayham’s real passion in life, it turns out, is women’s clothing. He studied fashion design, and holds on to his lifelong dream of designing a line of dresses.