Egypt’s monuments have continued to fall victim to the political chaos and lack of security in the country, writes Nevine El-Aref
‘You never need an argument against the use of violence, you need an argument for it’
— Noam Chomsky
Egypt’s heritage is the result of one of the most important of the world’s historical civilisations, developing a vast array of diverse structures and great architectural monuments along the Nile, the Mediterranean, the Red Sea and in the country’s deserts.
However, this year these often awe-inspiring edifices have been in peril due to the political turmoil and lack of security in the country since the 25 January Revolution. Armed gangs have been taking advantage of the situation to plunder the country’s sometimes poorly guarded archaeological sites through illegal excavations and robberies. Monuments in polluted areas such as in historic Cairo have been subjected to encroachment by inhabitants.
The threats are ongoing, and they may even be becoming worse since security remains insufficient, officials sometimes do not correctly do their jobs, and the attention of the public is directed towards politics rather than at the country’s heritage.
DAHSHOUR: The year started with the encroachment on the ancient Egyptian necropolis of Dahshour 40km south of Cairo, which was chosen by the Pharaohs of the Old and Middle Kingdoms to be their resting place for eternity.
Dahshour is known for its pyramids, two of which belong to Senefru, the founder of the fourth Dynasty and father of the Old Kingdom Pharaoh Khufu. There are also other pyramids and tombs from the Middle Kingdom, including the Black Pyramid of Amenhotep III and the White Pyramid of Amenhotep II. The site also features a 600-feddan lake, which attracts different species of birds from all over the world.
Robbers have dug deep pits in the sand at Dahshour in attempts to find buried objects, while the neighbouring inhabitants of Ezbet Dahshour, an informal settlement, supported by an armed gang, have invaded the area in front of the Black Pyramid and dug more than 30 new modern tombs, finishing them in white cement.
A German archaeological mission is currently excavating at Dahshour in an attempt to learn more about the site’s history. Over the last 10 years, the mission has unearthed a number of funerary objects dating back to the Old and Middle Kingdoms. Guards and antiquities inspectors at the site have confronted the invaders, but their attempts to repel them have failed since they lacked arms and sufficient force
Attempts to solve the problems at the site in an amicable manner have so far failed, but the inhabitants have at least moved away after the tourism and antiquities police offered them another plot away from the archaeological area where they could build modern tombs.
However, another attempt at encroachment then occurred after their removal, when vandals invaded the site with digging equipment in an apparent bid to build a private cemetery. The Ministry of State for Antiquities (MSA) in cooperation with the military and police foiled the attempt and arrested one of the criminals. The other three are still at large, and are being sought by the police.
HISTORIC CAIRO: Al-Muizz Street in historic Cairo is another site that has been threatened this year.
The iron gates imported from Italy to close off the street and turn it into a pedestrian zone during the daytime were broken by vandals in the aftermath of the revolution, and they were not repaired or replaced with new ones for budgetary reasons.
The zone had originally been planned to help visitors to the area enjoy the magnificent Islamic monuments in their original environment and experience the traditions and customs of those who lived during the various periods of the Islamic era. However, peddlers, fruit vendors and grocers have all moved into the area since the revolution to sell their goods in the street, sometimes on the monuments themselves. Some of them have erected ugly wooden kiosks to sell sweets and cigarettes, and the street is being used as a shortcut for vehicles, with the open courtyards of the Fatimid and Ottoman mosques being turned into parking lots.
The open court in front of the Ibn Barquq Mosque, a monument in the protected zone, has been transformed into a folkloric food court, where wooden handcarts laden with koshari (a rice and macaroni dish), liver, brains and hummus serve pedestrians and workers in the neighbourhood.
Meanwhile, the empty space between the Beit Al-Suheimi, one of the area’s most beautiful and important ancient houses, and the house next door is now an oriental coffee shop with a dozen small tables. The area in front of the Al-Hakim Mosque has been converted into an olive market in the morning and a coffee shop at night. At one corner there is a pool table where games take place.
Some of billboards in the street, which were supposed to be in harmony with its historical atmosphere, have also been changed into ugly new ones. “Such examples are not the only cases of the abuses that have been going on,” commented Mohamed Abdel-Aziz, director of the Historic Cairo Rehabilitation Project.
He added that vandals had damaged a large part of the granite used for the street’s pavements and plant basins. The billboards and information boards had been stolen, as had the lamps and rubbish bins. The walls of shops, residential houses and some edifices in the street had been turned into election boards for political slogans or advertisements, while other areas had been used to dump rubbish.
“The street is now a real mess,” Abdel-Aziz told Al-Ahram Weekly, pointing out that most of the work carried out during the past 10 years to make it into an open-air museum of Islamic art had now been ruined.
“The atmosphere in the street has changed for the worse,” Mustafa Alewa, a bazaar owner in Al-Muizz Street, told the Weekly. He said that the vibration from passing vehicles posed a huge threat to the monuments and he also complained about the constant noise of car horns. Ratiba Abbas, the owner of a shop in the neighbouring lemon market area, told the Weekly that the street has been turned into a rubbish dump. There was so much rubbish around, she said, that a stray cigarette end could easily cause a conflagration.
However, Abdel-Aziz said that efforts were continuing to restore the street despite the present difficulties. Rubbish removal was on-going, he said, and some of the information panels had been re-installed. Damaged granite tiles would be replaced with new ones, and the graffiti that had appeared on the walls would be removed.
Working with the Cairo governorate, the MSA had commissioned new gates for the area, and these would be installed soon, according to Minister of State for Antiquities Mohamed Ibrahim. All the information panels would be re-installed, and security kiosks would be erected at points along the street. A permanent police unit to control the entry of cars and other vehicles into the street would also be set up, the minister has promised.
MALAWI: In mid-August, the Malawi Museum in the Upper Egyptian city of Minya was looted when Malawi, once the capital of the ancient Egyptian Pharaoh Akhnaten, was disturbed by violence and clashes between protesters supporting the deposed former president Mohamed Morsi and the security forces after the latter had broken up the sit-ins in Rabaa Al-Adaweya and Nahda Square in Cairo.
The pro-Morsi protesters broke into the Malawi police station and town council building and then invaded the neighbouring Malawi Museum, clashing with guards and shooting one of them dead. They then damaged the museum garden, damaged the entrance gates, and managed to enter the museum building, breaking into display cases and looting the collection.
The museum was devastated during the events, its showrooms converted into a mess of broken glass, damaged sarcophagi and the broken statues of ancient Egyptian kings. Inspections carried out by the museum’s curators revealed that 1,040 out of the 1,050 objects in the museum’s collections were missing. Large and heavy artefacts were found broken and scattered over the museum’s floor.
A full list of the missing objects has been put on the International Council of Museums (ICOM) Red List for Egypt in order to prevent them from being illegally smuggled and traded on the international antiquities market. Such lists help police and customs authorities all over the world to recognise missing items.
A report on the state of the museum and the list of missing objects has also been sent to Egypt’s ambassador to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in Paris, Mohamed Amr, in order to activate the provisions of the 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property.
This stipulates that states parties to the convention may take appropriate steps to recover any cultural property improperly exported from their country. In the meantime, the looting of the Malawi Museum has shown the damage that has been done by pro-Morsi supporters to Egypt’s cultural, archaeological and historical heritage, their having also damaged a number of churches and historical buildings in other cities across Egypt.
Minister Mohamed Ibrahim has urged the Malawi inhabitants to hand over any artefacts they may find to the museum’s curators, promising that this can be done under an amnesty. He has also promised financial rewards for those who recover looted objects to recognise “their honesty and cooperation with the ministry in retrieving Egypt’s heritage.”
One Malawi resident recovered two statuettes depicting the ancient Egyptian god of prosperity Osiris. The statuettes are now at the Al-Ashmounein archaeological gallery for restoration. Other artefacts have also been recovered by the inhabitants, while others have been left in the museum’s garden by unknown individuals.
The curators of the museum have salvaged 30 artefacts that were broken and scattered during the looting. These include a collection of painted wooden sarcophagi, two mummies and Graeco-Roman stone statues. They are all under restoration. The museum has now recovered 800 objects from its collections, and there are hopes that it will recover all of them.
ILLEGAL EXCAVATIONS: Illegal excavations continued to take their toll on other archaeological sites, especially those in remote areas, said Mohamed Abdel-Maksoud, head of the ancient Egyptian section at the MSA.
The Hibeh site in the Beni Sweif governorate has been subjected to illegal excavations during night raids, with these apparently being carried out by an unknown person from Al-Ogra, a village neighbouring the site. Giza, Al-Qantara and the ancient Egyptian necropolis on the west bank of the Nile at Aswan have all been subjected to looting through illegal excavations.
The lack of security in the country has also encouraged foreigners to damage Egypt’s monuments, for example when two amateur German archaeologists from Dresden University sneaked inside the Great Pyramid of Khufu at Giza and stole samples of the Pharaoh’s cartouche engraved on the wall of a small room on top of the burial chamber. They also succeeded in entering Cairo University’s site house and photocopying archaeologist Selim Hassan’s documentary reports on his discoveries on the Giza Plateau.
The MSA has imposed penalties and taken legal action against the archaeologists, Dominique Goerlitz and Stefan Erdmann, as well as against Dresden University. It has also suspended cooperation with the University and with the German laboratory that analysed the stolen items from Khufu’s Pyramid. Ibrahim has sent the case to the Egyptian prosecutor-general for investigation and notified Interpol to put the German archaeologists on the airport watch list.