When King Senefru, the founder of the Fourth Dynasty, decided that he would build the first ever complete pyramid in the world to be his resting place for eternity, he chose the remote area of Dahshour as the perfect location.
Eventually several pyramids were built at Dahshour: the Red and Bent pyramids of Senefru, father of the Great Pyramid builder King Khufu; the White and Black pyramids of the Middle Kingdom kings Amenemhat I and III; and the mud-brick pyramid of King Senowsert III of the 12th Dynasty. Alongside these were smaller monuments to minor rulers, nobles and officials that tell of a fairly stable and peaceful period of Egypt’s history.
Until recently Dahshour managed to retain an atmosphere of quiet, even regal tranquillity. Now, however, more than 4,500 years after the first pyramid was built there, the serenity of the necropolis has been shattered.
Until 1996, when it was proclaimed one of Egypt’s major tourist destinations, the archaeological site was part of a military zone. While the area is not as commercially developed as the Giza Plateau, it is most noteworthy for being a site that best demonstrates the transition from the Step Pyramid at Saqqara to the true pyramid.
Regrettably, however, the lack of security on archaeological sites during and after the January 2011 Revolution has had a bad affect on Dahshour. The spiritual and archaeological environment has been desecrated, with plundering and destruction by vandals, thieves and neighbouring residents.
Early this week, Dahshour archaeological site guards woke up to the roar of bulldozers and shotgun blasts that wrecked the age-long serenity. An armed gang accompanied by residents of Ezbet Dahshour was ravaging the area in front of King Amenemhat III’s Black Pyramid and digging in the sand in order to install a modern private cemetery.
Yet this area was a necropolis for ancient Egyptian nobles and officials, and a German archaeological mission is currently excavating there and learning more about Dahshour’s history. Over the last 10 years the mission has unearthed a number of funerary objects that can be dated back to the Old and Middle Kingdoms.
Guards and antiquities inspectors on the scene confronted the invaders, but their attempts to repel them failed because they lacked sufficient arms and force. One of the inspectors had a leg broken during the confrontation and he is now in hospital awaiting surgery.
Nasser Ramadan, director general of the Dahshour archaeological site, told Al-Ahram Weekly that the invasion was immediately reported to the Police Station on site but they failed to intervene, and even the military detachment stationed less than a kilometre from the site did not respond to a request to come to the site and clear it of invaders.
“The invaders dug more than 30 new tombs on the site with ugly white cement blocks,” Ramadan said. “Not only do they distort the scene and the panorama view of the site, but they are destroying the ancient artefacts buried in the sand underneath. Our hands are tied and our heritage is in danger, and nobody is rescuing it.”
Ramadan said that all the authorities concerned should move to save and protect Egypt’s priceless monuments.
Archaeologists and others concerned about the issue have launched several campaigns on Facebook and archaeological websites to rescue and protect Dahshour from encroachment. Others have called on UNESCO to intervene to stop the intrusion and help save one of its world heritage sites.
All attempts to solve the problem in an amicable manner have so far failed, and Dahshour residents on the site have refused to move to another plot away from the archaeological area where they could easily build a modern cemetery. Instead, they insist on staying where they are.
Minister of State for Antiquities Mohamed Ibrahim told the Weekly that the ministry had taken legal steps, but that since the people still refused to move the ministry was now collaborating with the Tourism and Antiquities Police to remove the intruders by force. They had been allocated a new plot for their cemetery, he said.
Ibrahim explained that the lack of security in the aftermath of the revolution was the main reason for the residents’ decision to encroach on the archaeological land, and that the budget shortage the Ministry of State for Antiquities (MSA) was feeling because of the withdrawal of tourism to Egypt presented an obstacle to providing private security at every archaeological sites to prevent further encroachment.
“We have to depend on the Ministry of Interior and the Tourism and Antiquities Police as usual,” Ibrahim said. He added that the situation could be solved by applying a new mechanism to prohibit citizens from encroaching on any archaeological site in Egypt.
So where is the new antiquities law and its amendment? Why is it not being implemented? Among the law’s articles is one that prohibits any encroachment on archeological sites and a prison term for offenders.
Up to the time the Weekly went to print, this question had not been answered by any official apart from one who required anonymity. He said that the current government did not care about Egypt’s history and its culture. He added that a couple of months ago a contractor damaged the Ottoman house of Matsh-Merza in Boulaq, and that when he was caught red-handed he was set at large with a fine of only LE500. This contractor, the official said, returned to the house and resumed the demolition, and nobody moved on to save this great Ottoman house, not even the MSA.