Al-Ahram Weekly Online   27 Feb. - 5 March 2003
Issue No. 627
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Guarding the guards

While Egypt celebrates the return of a number of valuable antiquities, the head of the retrieved antiquities department is under arrest for facilitating a smuggling attempt. Nevine El-Aref reports

In spite of persistent efforts by the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) to prevent the looting of Egyptian heritage, including the recent and much-publicised recovery of several artefacts that had been smuggled out of the country, Abdel- Karim Abu-Shanab, head of the SCA's newly-established retrieved antiquities department, was arrested two weeks ago along with another archaeological inspector. They were accused of allegedly receiving a bribe of LE25,000 to issue a fake certificate to facilitate the smuggling of 362 objects, and forging the signature of another colleague, the third member of the checking committee. The objects included gold and silver coins from the Graeco-Roman and Islamic eras, as well as Pharaonic amulets, ushabti figures and scarabs.

The arrest came immediately after Cairo airport customs police discovered that the objects, which were packed in 31 boxes for air shipment to a private dealer in Spain, were genuine pieces and not modern replicas as identified in the certificate issued by the SCA and held by the merchant Mohamed El-Shaaer.

Both Abu-Shanab and the second inspector, Mohamed Abdel-Rahman Fahmi, are being held in custody. Al-Shaaer is still at large. If the prosecution's case is proven, the defendants could receive the maximum sentence of 15 years with hard labour. However, owing to Abu-Shanab's confession, his sentence could be reduced to three years' hard labour and a fine of LE50,000.

"Stealing antiquities is not just an Egyptian phenomenon but rather an international one, and happens in both developed and under-developed countries," Culture Minister Farouk Hosni told Al- Ahram Weekly. Hosni argued that such crimes occurred here only because of the value attached to objects from ancient Egypt and the craze sometimes called Egyptomania. "We are trying hard to preserve and protect our heritage by constructing museums and museological store houses all over the country to display the large number of artefacts discovered," Hosni said. "At the same time we are tightening security measures in all museums and archaeological sites by installing a high-tech security system in each one."

Zahi Hawass, secretary-general of the SCA, expressed satisfaction at the arrest of Abu-Shanab. "It means nothing if one antiquities official is corrupt," Hawass told the Weekly. "As the secretary-general of the SCA, I could not hold a stick over the heads of the council's over 30,000 staff members. Conscience, morality and national interests are personal, and the question is whether one's motive is to preserve or loot the heritage."

Hawass said Abu-Shanab was an SCA official who supervised three administrations: acquisition, retrieval and cross- border traffic. "When I took office I reduced his responsibilities to just being in charge of the retrieval department, where he followed up letters concerning the recovery of smuggled antiquities," he added.

Hawass said smuggling attempts would not stop unless the punishment for helping with or smuggling antiquities under Antiquities Law No. 117 of 1983 was raised to the death penalty.

"Cancelling the acquisition law and developing the current Antiquities Law are the only solutions to preserving our heritage," Abdel-Halim Nureddin, dean of the faculty of archaeology at Fayoum University, said. Nureddin explained that if the law forbade the possession of antiquities in the hands of private dealers before 1983, no one would be able to alter the authenticity of objects by declaring them replicas. In order to control the number of replicas on the market, Nureddin said, all replicas should only be made in registered SCA factories and not in the Khan Al-Khalili or other bazaars.

On the other hand, Dean of Arab Archaeologists Ali Radwan said protecting Egypt's antiquities was not the responsibility of archaeologists but was fully under the umbrella of the Tourism and Antiquities police. "We, archeologists, cannot assign a policeman to control inspectors who could sell their morality to an antiquity trader," Radwan said.

The Culture and Interior Ministries have installed a procedure to combat antiquities smuggling and theft. All guards and security personnel will be highly-trained in a special police institute to make them better qualified for their work. At the same time the tourist and antiquities police will draw up reports on all guards and inspectors in archaeological areas. All suspect or illegal connections will be investigated.

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