Al-Ahram Weekly Online   26 June - 2 July 2008
Issue No. 903
Egypt
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Unholy thefts

Squabbles between the Supreme Council of Antiquities and the Ministry of Awqaf (religious endowments) are wreaking havoc on the fate of Egypt's Islamic monuments, reports Nevine El-Aref

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Thefts from Islamic monuments in the Darb Al-Ahmar area have highlighted the problem of security at Cairo's historic mosques. Inlaid wooden panels from the minbars of Ganim Al-Bahlawan and Altinbuga Al-Maridani mosques have been stolen, and a marble relief from the Blue Mosque. Thieves were also caught red handed, attempting to make off with a magnificent ironwork grill window from the sabil kuttab of Rokaya Dudu.

Residents of Darb Al-Ahmar suspect a professional local gang, which operates at night, between night and dawn prayers. Ahmed Hassan, who owns a perfume shop in the vicinity of several targeted mosques, said the minbar at Al-Maridani was removed in three phases over 10 days, raising questions as to how seriously the authorities take their responsibility to guard historic sites. The theft of the minbar 's right hand panel was discovered at the time of dawn prayer. A week passed before the left hand panel was removed, and a further two days before the thieves returned to remove the ivory inlaid hood of the minbar.

At Ganim Al-Bahlawan robbers removed the decorative elements of the minbar, leaving a plain wooden frame. At Rokaya Dudu sabil kuttab they succeeded in dismantling the iron grill from a window only to be apprehended by local residents who alerted the police. The window is now being held by the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) inspectorate, to be returned to its original location following restoration work.

"It's a terrible loss," says Gamal Abdel-Rehim, professor of Islamic monuments at Cairo University's Faculty of Archaeology. The minbar of Ganim Al-Bahlawan was among the most important in any of Cairo's monumental mosques.

Abdel-Khaleq Mokhtar, director of monuments in south Cairo, told Al-Ahram Weekly that the SCA was able to abort the theft of the window at the sabil kuttab of Rokaya Dudu because the monument is under the complete supervision of the SCA, which provides a 24-hour security, while the mosques are under the control of the Ministry of Awqaf.

"Securing archaeological sites is the responsibility of the authority to which the site is affiliated," he says. Quite how 24-hour security allowed the window to be dismantled in the first place remains a mystery. Yet Abdel-Khaleq insists the SCA secures its own site round the clock, while monuments such as mosques, under bilateral supervision, are guarded only until 4pm.

Abdel-Khaleq says the SCA has repeatedly requested that the Ministry of Awqaf tighten security at mosques or else hand over responsibility to the SCA. "Currently the role of the SCA is to restore mosques and then hand them back to the Awqaf. The SCA then makes only periodic checks on the buildings' archaeological features."

Sheikh Kamal Abdel-Nasser, director of Awqaf in Cairo, argues that the SCA is shirking its responsibilities. "Why does the SCA refuse to admit responsibility for their own security shortcomings and seek, instead, to blame the mosque guards?" he asks.

Abdel-Nasser points out that legally monuments and archaeological sites are all the responsibility of the SCA and not the Awqaf. Furthermore, he adds, the mosque of Ganim Al-Bahlawan has been closed now for two years while restoration work is carried out under the supervision of the SCA and its contractors. "These accusations addressed to the Ministry of Awqaf are an attempt by the SCA to deny its responsibility for what happened."

Zahi Hawass, secretary-general of the SCA, will hold a meeting next week with the head of the Awqaf to draw up a security plan for archaeological mosques.

"Millions of pounds have been spent restoring these mosques which are then handed back to the Ministry of Awqaf," says Hawass. To tighten security, Hawass believes that the Ministry of Awqaf must provide the names of guards to both the SCA and security forces, and the SCA and Ministry of Awqaf need to cooperate more closely in an attempt to provide 24-hour security.

"Securing and preserving Egypt's Islamic monuments is not only the responsibility of the ministries of culture, awqaf, interior, the SCA and the relevant governorate. It is the responsibility of all Egyptians who want to protect their heritage and their history," says Hawass.

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