The looting of Egypt’s cultural heritage is reaching epidemic proportions with even some major sites now not left untouched, writes David Tresilian from Paris
The breakdown in security that followed the collapse of the Iraqi regime in March 2003 led to the widespread looting of archaeological sites up and down the country, together with the looting of the National Museum and Archives in the capital Baghdad. The ongoing conflict in Syria has seen a similar collapse of security in many parts of the country, with predictable effects on the country’s heritage.
Now it seems that Egypt too may be suffering from the effects of the breakdown in security that has taken place over the past three years and since the 25 January Revolution. While no one is suggesting that this breakdown has led to the kind of losses seen in other Arab countries, where heritage sites and institutions have in some cases been badly damaged or even partially destroyed, the situation of even archaeological sites close to Cairo is becoming more and more worrying.
It is not only archaeological sites that have come under threat, since two of the highest-profile cases of damage to the country’s heritage in the years since the 25 January Revolution have had to do with institutions. The looting that took place at the Malawi Museum last summer drew attention to the threat that the breakdown of security in some parts of the country could represent to provincial museums, while this year’s bombing of the Cairo Security Directorate and with it the destruction of the façade and much of the interior of the nearby Islamic Museum indicated the threat to even the capital’s cultural institutions.
However, while these have been the cases that have hit the national and international headlines the true extent of the threat to Egypt’s heritage has perhaps lain elsewhere in the illicit excavation of archaeological sites outside the capital and illegal encroachment on them. The illicit excavation of archaeological sites, carried out in the hope of finding antiquities that can then be smuggled out of the country for sale abroad, has been going on for centuries, but there has been a huge increase in such activities since 2011.
When the problem of illegal encroachment on archaeological sites and opportunistic thefts from even urban sites and monuments is added to the rise in cases of illicit excavation, the true extent of the crisis emerges. Commenting on the situation in an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly, Salima Ikram, professor of Egyptology at the American University in Cairo (AUC), said that “after the security forces left the archaeological sites unguarded in 2011 there was a massive spike in the illegal acquisition and sale of antiquities.”
“There has been an increase in the number of armed gangs, operating with instructions from one or more knowledgeable parties, targeting sites,” Ikram said. “Looting is going on particularly in desert areas where it is very difficult to patrol. Often the looters are armed with automatic weapons, whereas the guards have limited firepower. The encroachment on the sites is also just as terrible as it means that the history of Egypt is being lost to us forever.”
It is for these reasons that some observers have begun to speak of a heritage crisis affecting Egypt, one which could wreak lasting damage on the country’s cultural sites and institutions.
Sites in danger: While the problem of the illicit excavation of archaeological sites in the hope of finding antiquities that can then be sold abroad has been growing since the 25 January Revolution, it has only been recently that it has been reported in the national and particularly the international press.
According to the Antiquities Coalition, a US-based association of archaeologists, there have been “looting activities in every major archaeological area in Egypt since the January 2011 Revolution,” with looted artefacts now routinely showing up for auction in Europe and North America. “Tens of millions of dollars have left Egypt in the form of looted antiquities,” since the 25 January Revolution, the coalition states. “Rampant cultural racketeering since the Egyptian Revolution” has led to looting at “museums, warehouses, religious grounds, and archaeological excavation sites,” with robbers “slipping away with irreplaceable treasures.”
The extent of the problem can be measured by visual inspections of archaeological sites and by monitoring the number of Egyptian antiquities offered for sale abroad. According to Monica Hanna, an Egyptian archaeologist and co-founder of the Egypt’s Heritage Task Force Facebook site, the problems that have been seen at the Abu Sir Al-Malaq archaeological site south of Cairo have become all too typical of the threats facing heritage sites in the country as a whole.
This 500-feddan site on the edge of Fayoum in the Beni Suef governorate contains burials dating from the ancient Egyptian to the Coptic era, making it a palimpsest of Egypt’s early history. The area has an additional importance because it was here that the last Umayyad caliph, Marwan Ibn Mohamed Al-Ja‘di (744-751), died, apparently while taking refuge in a Coptic monastery in Abu Sir Al-Malaq.
Today, Hanna told the Weekly, the archaeological site has been “80 to 85 per cent looted,” with the ancient necropolis turned into an undulating landscape of pits and tunnels by looters looking for antiquities that can be smuggled out of Egypt and put on sale abroad. Discarded grave goods thought to be of little value and including human bones and mummy fragments can be seen scattered around the site where they have been abandoned by looters.
According to Hanna, most of this damage has been done since 2011 after the withdrawal of meaningful security at the site. Even more disturbingly, much of it seems to have been done by armed gangs operating with expert advice and outside funding rather than by local people, indicating that some of the looting that is taking place at Abu Sir Al-Malaq and other sites has been commissioned from outside in order to serve the international collectors market.
The pictures of the Abu Sir Al-Malaq site are disturbing enough, “heart-breaking” is what Hanna calls them given the losses to Egypt’s heritage that they represent, but the looting and illicit excavation at this site is becoming sadly typical of what is also going on elsewhere. The problem is particularly acute in remote areas where access can be difficult for outside observers and security can be difficult to maintain.
Some of this damage can be seen on Hanna’s Egypt’s Heritage Task Force Facebook site, which is fast becoming an essential resource for those concerned by the threats facing Egypt’s heritage. In addition to photographs of the tragically pockmarked landscape of Abu Sir Al-Malaq, the site also contains visual evidence and documentary reports of similar phenomena elsewhere, for example at the Al-Hiba archaeological site south of Fayoum, in the Dakhla and Bahariya oases in the Western Desert, and at Upper Egyptian sites in Sohag and Aswan.
Even in areas where looting has not been such a significant problem, Hanna says, uncontrolled building or encroachment on archaeological sites has presented as severe a threat to the country’s heritage. While such sites were better protected before the 25 January Revolution, since then land-grabs have been noted on a regular basis, with regulations either not being enforced or enforced too late after significant damage has been done.
There have also been reports of archaeological storerooms being broken into by looters and objects found within them smuggled out to buyers abroad. Since many of the items kept in such stores are typically uncatalogued, not having the inventory numbers and documentation that make looted museum items unattractive even to the most unscrupulous buyers, stored items can make tempting targets for looters. Uncatalogued and not appearing on official inventories, they are often untraceable once they have been smuggled abroad.
Heritage for sale: The damage that is being done to Egypt’s archaeological sites is an expression of the market for Egyptian antiquities abroad, and while greater security at archaeological sites and better training of police and customs authorities would undoubtedly help to reduce the problem it is unlikely to solve it in the absence of more effective controls on the buying and selling of antiquities.
With this in mind, the Egyptian government has asked the US state department to approve emergency measures to allow US customs authorities to seize Egyptian artefacts entering the United States even in the absence of precise information that the artefacts may have been stolen. According to an editorial that appeared in the New York Times on 20 March this year, there has long been a need for “broader safeguards…that could include American auction houses, art dealers and individuals halting the sale of any antiquity lacking the stamp of approval from the government in Cairo.”
For the time being, however, such sales go on, despite the dampening effect of some high-profile cases of theft or doubtful provenance. Speaking to the Weekly, Hanna pointed to a list of Internet sites offering ancient Egyptian antiquities for sale from addresses in Europe and the United States, in many cases with only perfunctory attempts at provenance. Some of these sites, offering “museum surplus,” are identified on the Egypt’s Heritage Task Force site, while others can be tracked down by a simple Internet search.
Despite a report to the contrary in the New York Times, at the time the Weekly went to press ancient Egyptian antiquities were being offered for sale on the Internet auction site eBay at prices ranging from between a few dozen to a few hundred dollars, many of them sourced from Europe, the UK and the United Arab Emirates.
One of the problems in cracking down on this trade is that antiquities smuggled out of Egypt to be sold on the international market can be kept in storage for years, Hanna said, in an attempt to deflect suspicion. According to a report in the Web-based Al-Monitor in April, Israel has seized “hundreds and hundreds” of looted Egyptian antiquities smuggled out through Sinai, with none of these being returned to the Egyptian authorities. Quoting Deborah Lehr, chair of the Antiquities Coalition, the article said that “Israel and Switzerland are hubs where criminals consolidate their loot before trying to sell items on to collectors.”
It seems that many of the same issues that frustrated efforts to control the trade in illicitly excavated and illegally exported Iraqi antiquities following the collapse in security in Iraq are today also weighing on attempts to halt the trade in Egyptian antiquities. Legal provisions can be cumbersome, inadequate, or sporadically applied, resources few, and law-enforcement too often at a loss when faced with the organised character of the antiquities trade in which appetites and monetary amounts are high.
Efforts to raise international awareness of the problem, such as the International Council of Museum’s (ICOM) Emergency Red List of Egyptian Cultural Objects at Risk, a catalogue of Egyptian cultural goods protected by national and international legislation but still susceptible to being illegally bought and sold, can encourage auction houses, art dealers and collectors better to research the provenance and documentation of items coming their way that may have been subjected to illegal trafficking. However, this requires good will on the part of all those concerned, together with the availability of the necessary training and resources.
“Inventories in Egyptian museums are not up to date, common in many countries, unfortunately, but particularly dangerous in Egypt in the light of the current situation,” Ikram commented. “Some cases [of artefacts going missing] that date back to 2002 are only becoming visible now. Only time will tell how much new material has been removed over the past three years, since at present this can only be estimated.”
Moreover, it is not only ancient Egyptian artefacts, looted from sites or lifted from site storerooms, that are at risk because of the illegal trade. Architectural and decorative elements from Islamic buildings, among them mosques, have also been targeted, as have Coptic icons. “Urban sites are also very much at risk, sometimes just from opportunistic thieves,” Ikram added.
According to unverified reports linked to on the Egypt’s Heritage Task Force Facebook site, “architectural elements from door furniture to entire doors and wooden mosque pulpits and even the ceilings of Ottoman-era houses” have gone missing in Cairo in recent years, with stories circulating of “middlemen buying their way through heritage districts on behalf of wealthy clients seeking to acquire authentic elements to decorate their newly built homes.”
Gone forever: In interviews with the Weekly, both Ikram and Hanna spoke of what must now be done nationally and internationally if Egypt’s heritage is to survive for future generations to learn from and enjoy.
“It is understandable that in the present troubled period the security forces cannot be everywhere, “Ikram said. “But more should be done, both by the Ministry of State for Antiquities and by the security forces,” to protect sites and institutions. “Internationally more should be done to discourage dealers and potential purchasers, and countries that have not signed accords to help this to happen should be encouraged to do so.”
“There should be better site security,” Hanna said. “We have 12,000 people responsible for security at heritage sites, but they are not necessarily properly trained. There should also be emergency salvage archaeological excavations carried out at the looted sites. We need to save the history that is in the process of being lost and make efforts to document it. We need to see greater efforts to stop the international trade in stolen antiquities and the huge black market.”
Meanwhile, scrolling through the Egypt’s Heritage Task Force site reveals the crisis in its many dimensions. It is not just movable heritage or archaeological sites that are at risk. Since the 25 January Revolution, notionally protected heritage areas such as Darb Al-Ahmar in Islamic Cairo have come under renewed threat, with important ensembles of historic buildings disappearing virtually overnight to feed the hunger for land for new construction. Similar destruction has taken place of 19th or early 20th-century villas in Cairo and Alexandria, the cases of the Villa Casdagli and the Villa Ispenian in Cairo and the Villa Aghion in Alexandria being but the best known.
Institutions such as the Malawi Museum in Minya have suffered looting, while the collections of the Islamic Museum in Cairo, the building’s façade and interior destroyed by a bomb, escaped damage by a miracle. No such good fortune protected the Institut d’Egypte on the corner of Qasr Al-Aini Street in central Cairo, which went up in flames in December 2011 in post-revolutionary clashes, along with its priceless collections.
Taken together, such events make sobering reading for anyone concerned about the future of Egypt’s heritage. As the Egypt’s Heritage Task Force site reveals, they are by no means the only ones.