Middle East Looters Turn to Spirit Possession to Find Gold Treasure

Some looters operating near the city of Ramallah in the West Bank have turned to spirit possession in hopes of finding gold treasure, research shows.
Some looters operating near the city of Ramallah in the West Bank have turned to spirit possession in hopes of finding gold treasure, research shows. (Image credit: Shutterstock)

As "antique" gold coins from the Middle East pour into the United States, some looters are turning to spirits called "jinn" in their hunt for gold treasure. A few gold seekers even go so far as to try to get the jinn to possess them in hopes that the spirits will guide them to that hidden jackpot.

However, research by archaeologists and an investigation conducted by Live Science suggest that rarely, if ever, does using the jinn help looters find gold artifacts. Rather, metal detectors and mass excavation of archaeological sites seem to be the most effective ways of looting treasure. [7 Stunning Archaeological Sites in Syria]

Gold fever  

Throughout the Middle East, looters have raided numerous archaeological sites over the past two decades. This theft is driven by multiple factors, including war, poverty and demand for artifacts, archaeologists have said. 

U.S. government documents obtained by Live Science reveal that shipments of gold coins, which the records describe as being over 100 years old, shipped from the Middle East to the United States, have increased dramatically over the last 25 years. In fact, between 2011 and 2017, nearly 452 lbs. (205,000 grams) of these gold coins were shipped to the U.S. from the Middle East, compared with just 10.8 lbs. (4,900 grams) between 1992 and 2000.

That weight, 452 lbs., is the equivalent of more than 36,000 modern-day U.S. quarters, according to the U.S. Mint. It's not clear how many of the gold coins were looted. [30 of the World's Most Valuable Treasures That Are Still Missing]

Archaeologists working in the Middle East told Live Science that looters, as well as people not involved in looting, strongly believe that gold treasure — be it coins or otherwise — waits to be found in the region. Many looters think that the Ottoman Empire (which existed between 1299 and 1922) left behind gold as it retreated from parts of the Middle East.

"There's this big lore about Ottoman gold being left behind when the Ottomans left the area," said Morag Kersel, an anthropology professor at DePaul University in Chicago, who investigates the antiquities trade as part of her research. Kersel has talked to looters who operate in Israel, Palestine and Jordan. "They're always on the hunt for that."

Spirit possession

Kersel and Salah Al-Houdalieh, an archaeology professor at Al-Quds University in Jerusalem, have both noted that looters are particularly interested in jinn. This type of spirit, according to legends told in the Middle East, guards "protected treasure," usually consisting of gold.  

"According to my interviews with sheikhs [individuals with religious knowledge] and antiquities looters, yes, of course, [they believe] most of the protected treasures are made of gold and the majority of the gold is coins," Al-Houdalieh told Live Science.

The sheikhs Al-Houdalieh interviewed said that "usually protection [for a treasure] is sought by the original owner who makes the request to a sorcerer ('saher') experienced in such matters. The sorcerer, in turn, summons his contact from the jinn world, usually the prince or princess of one of the jinn tribes [according to legend tribes consisting entirely of jinn exist]" wrote Al-Houdalieh in a paper published in 2012 in the Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology. If the owner dies, the jinn continue guarding the treasure, the sheikhs and looters told Al-Houdalieh.

In some instances, looters will try to get jinn to possess them, or someone with them, in hopes that the jinn will take the gold seekers to protected treasure, Al-Houdalieh's research found. The looter will hire a sheikh who will perform a ceremony that supposedly results in jinn possession.

"For the sheikhs, it is business. Either they receive money in advance, which is very rare, or they receive money after selling the hunted objects. They receive a share of 20 percent or more, depending on the deal they made," Al-Houdalieh told Live Science. During the spirit-possession ceremony, the sheikhs "read special verses of the Holy Quran," said Al-Houdalieh, adding that he has seen no evidence that hypnosis or drugs are used.

The looters who undergo spirit possession claim that they experience memory loss. From what the looters say, "there is a temporary loss of memory, but repeated possession by jinn may cause permanent negative impact on the behavior of the possessed person," Al-Houdalieh said. He's careful to note that in all instances he has seen, the supposedly possessed person fails to find gold treasure.

Looters believe they can interact with the jinn in other ways, too, Al-Houdalieh and Kersel said. In some cases, looters will search for signs in the landscape that the jinn has hidden treasure nearby. In other cases, looters claim that they are attacked by jinn when they enter an area that has treasure the jinn are protecting. Some of the looters that Al-Houdalieh has interviewed claim that the jinn can take both animal and human form and attack people when they get close to a protected treasure — with the spirits dressing in white clothes when they appear in human form.

In some stories, the jinn communicate through a young child or a sign that the jinn supposedly leave on a stone. "I have heard from folks that the jinn themselves haven't come to them but [instead] through a 5-year-old boy, or through someone else, or through a sign that's left on the stone [so that] they know that the jinn are telling them to dig here," Kersel said.

Al-Houdalieh noted a case in which a sheikh supposedly had a jinn possess a child, who then allegedly gave the location of treasure before the sheikh told the jinn to leave the child's body. Six looters used the information the child had given, but they never found that treasure.

Live Science investigation

Curious to learn more about this connection between looters and the jinn, I launched my own investigation. I joined an online social media group in which people who try to use the jinn to find treasure often congregate, and then I monitored the group for two months. I found that many of the people who use the jinn to look for treasure are based in Israel, Palestine or Jordan.

The people I encountered were particularly interested in what they claimed to be "signals" from the jinn. The users often posted photos and videos of features they encountered in caves or hillsides that they believed, if analyzed correctly, would lead to hidden treasure. These features often show fractures or holes on a rock surface. Those who posted the photos often asked for "expert analysis" from people in the group. On a few occasions, people found rock art or stone structures that are actual archaeological remains, but the users believed the sites to be "signals" from the jinn.

Some people posted about looting issues other than those involving the jinn, such as how to buy a metal detector in Jordan or how to recruit an expert who is knowledgeable about archaeological remains. One post discussed safety issues when trying to loot a site, such as how to tell when oxygen is running out in a cave (a candle going out is a supposedly a good indication) and how to crawl through tunnels without getting stuck. Members of the group rarely discussed spirit possession.

People sometimes posted pictures of artifacts, such as pottery, that they claimed to have found, with the help of the jinn or otherwise. But I found no evidence that anyone in the group had succeeded in uncovering gold artifacts while seeking the jinn's help. Al-Houdalieh found similar failures with the jinn.

How do looters really find gold coins?

Regardless of the jinn, gold artifacts are rarely found at archaeological sites, noted Kersel in an article published this summer in News & Notes, a magazine published by The Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago.

Given how hard it is to find actual ancient gold coins, people sometimes create forgeries. In Egypt, modern-day gold is sometimes molded into coins that are made to look ancient. "A lot of local jewelers fake gold coins and sell them as antiquities," Monica Hanna, an Egyptologist working with Egypt's Heritage Task Force, told Live Science in 2016.

When looters in the Middle East do find gold coins, the treasure hunters seem to have used metal detectors rather than the jinn. In a paper published last year in the Journal of Field Archaeology, researchers Neil Brodie and Isber Sabrine interviewed six people living in Syria who either are involved in looting or have extensive knowledge of looting activities.

Those interviewed said that metal detectors or massive work gangs that could dig up vast areas of an archaeological site quickly were used to look for coins and sometimes gold coins were discovered. The researchers granted the six people they interviewed anonymity to protect their identity and to allow them to speak freely.

One of the people the researchers interviewed claimed that a hoard of Roman gold coins found at the archaeological site of Tell Hamamiat was sold, along with some figurines, for $150,000 in the town of Al Madiq [also called Qalaat al-Madiq] in Syria. [Photos: Damage to Syrian Ruins Seen from Space]

"What stands out now from these interview texts is the use of metal detectors and the commercial importance of coins," wrote Brodie, a senior research fellow at the University of Oxford, and Sabrine, a Ph.D. researcher at the University of Girona in Spain, in their journal article. Coins are "very easy to loot, very easy to move and very easy to hide" Sabrine told Live Science.

Sabrine said that while he hasn't heard stories of people in Syria using the jinn to find gold treasures, it is possible. Regardless of which method looters use to find artifacts, Sabrine said that some of the most interesting looted artifacts from Syria may not appear on the antiquities market until years after the civil war in Syria ends. The war has been raging since 2011 and has killed hundreds of thousands of people and forced millions of Syrians to flee their homes.

Originally published on Live Science.

Owen Jarus
Live Science Contributor

Owen Jarus is a regular contributor to Live Science who writes about archaeology and humans' past. He has also written for The Independent (UK), The Canadian Press (CP) and The Associated Press (AP), among others. Owen has a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Toronto and a journalism degree from Ryerson University.