The antiquities trade is not a new one; in fact, it is an ancient business. A papyrus survives from the reign of Ramses IX (ca. 1126–1108 BCE) to tell us of a tomb robbery and the prosecution of the robbers involved. Why do people steal what is, in essence, already theirs?
If you weren’t on the streets of Cairo on 28 January 2011, you were at home, glued to the televisions, horrified, and in a state of disbelief. Throughout the country hundreds of thousands of protestors were on the streets calling for the removal of Mubarak’s regime. They were beaten, tear gas canisters were thrown to disperse them, and rubber bullets and live ammunition were fired. By sundown a curfew was imposed, and police forces disappeared from the streets. Soon afterwards, acts of mass looting and vandalism began. The headquarters of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) in downtown Cairo were breached, and TV footage showed men carrying chairs, desks and other movable items, evidently taken from the NDP building. It was then set on fire. Police cars were also set alight, their gas tanks exploding in the night.
Amidst this, reports of attacks on the Egyptian Museum appeared on television, accompanied by concerns that the fire at the neighbouring NDP building might extend to the museum.
Later, news stations announced that protestors formed a human shield around the museum to protect it. Nevertheless, it was ransacked and looted, and many feared of another cultural tragedy, on the scale of that faced by Baghdad Museum. But the Egyptian Museum was not the only site targeted, and 28 January was only the beginning of a widespread wave of looting and vandalism across the country’s antiquities museums and storehouses.
Why do people loot antiquities? Well, for one, the antiquities trade is nothing new; in fact, it is a very long standing business.
A papyrus survives from the reign of Ramses IX (ca. 1126–1108 BCE) to tell us of a tomb robbery and the persecution of the robbers involved. More recently, since the West started developing an interest in Egyptian antiquities, they have ﬂocked to Egypt with their big pockets, ready to spend whatever it takes to bring home souvenirs, be they small as amulets, or as big as mummies or the odd colossal obelisk. Tourists, up until the early twentieth century (or explorers and travellers as they were called back then) relied on locals to procure them interesting buys. With the ban on antiquities trading, it became increasingly difficult to sell ancient artefacts, as people could no longer create a display of mummies ‘for sale’ outside their homes. Many turned to handmade crafts and forging artefacts.
Nevertheless, the high prices paid for antiquities still makes selling them a very lucrative business, even despite the 1970 Geneva Convention prohibiting illicit trade in cultural property.
During the uprising, reports of criminals with automatic weapons attacking archaeological sites and storehouses became an almost daily occurrence, pointing to the operation of organized gangs.
However, the antiquities trade is not the only reason Egyptian archaeological sites have been vandalized and looted. It is not only machine-gun-carrying-masked-bandits who threaten the antiquities. The phenomenon of vandalism to archaeological sites – which also includes trespassing – runs much deeper than just the antiquities trade. A lack of affinity for the antiquities, no benefits (financial and otherwise) from the archaeological sites, a strong curiosity towards what is hidden and unknown, and a deficient education are also to blame.
LACK OF BENEFIT
Not everyone living around an archaeological site was able to make a living off antiquities, more so after the ban on antiquities trading; people instead relied on selling their services as guides or on inviting tourists to their homes for an authentic Egyptian meal in return for a fee. They also relied on selling simple handicrafts – a basket or doll or homemade ‘antiquity’. Peddling goods and services around sites to visitors and tourists was once a huge source of income for locals. Now, especially over the last decade or so, hawkers are forcefully being kept out of many sites, particularly the larger and more visited ones, as they are said to harass tourists (admittedly true to an extent) and pose a threat to the antiquities (also not entirely untrue).
Walls and fences have been built around many sites, keeping the local people out and reminding them that these sites are not theirs, they are for tourists and archaeologists. With no moneymaking prospects, and no understanding of the intangible value of the monuments, how could one expect locals not to loot and trespass, or to protect them when they are being threatened?
With no relationship between locals and the fenced off sites next to their homes, they develop curiosity. ‘Why is the antiquities authority fencing off a pile of stones if they do not contain something more valuable?’ they might ask themselves. They see archaeologists and tourists coming and going, and with no personal interaction, they are curious as to what happens at these sites. With the absence of the police, they suddenly had the opportunity to enter. Curiosity about what lay inside the tombs and storehouses moved them. Many of the opened Memphite tombs were left intact, as though someone came, had a look, and left. In other cases, particularly in storehouses, once they were finally in and could take whatever they wanted, objects were indeed taken, perhaps as souvenirs, but more likely in the hope of making a hefty profit.
LACK OF EDUCATION
Both this curiosity and a lack of affinity can be attributed to a deficiency in education. Locals living around archaeological sites often do not know the site’s true history and significance, basing their knowledge on whatever oral traditions have survived, and whatever they overhear from tour guides. They do not regard archaeology as a part of their heritage. To them it is no more than a pile of stones or bricks, or some scattered bones.
And those who do see beyond the rubble either regard the monuments as remnants of a pagan past – one that does not merit rescuing or preservation – or as a possible source of income.
Archaeologists and specialists excavating around sites rarely take any steps to integrate the community. They seldom gather locals around to show them what they are doing, what they are studying, or to stimulate an interest by opening a dialogue.
How can locals appreciate what they have if they do not know what it is? They need to have the opportunity to learn what the antiquities are, and how to care for them.
This lack of education also results in myths being created and perpetuated. A failed attempt to steal a 160-ton statue in Aswan, raised the question: why? This statue measures some six metres in height, and is unprotected. Were the looters planning on hiding it under the bed? Or pretending it was a replica and smuggling it abroad covered in a layer of plaster? A common belief among the rural community is that pharaonic statues, inscribed blocks, and pretty much anything ancient, contain gold within them, and this belief is what has prompted many similar acts of looting.
Another urgent threat is caused by trespassers on land containing antiquities. People throughout the country have always trespassed, but subtly. During the revolution, a whole archaeological site in the Delta was reportedly levelled completely and replaced with agricultural fields. In other instances houses or mosques were built. In many cases, as I have observed myself, the antiquities recovered during the building activities are trashed and broken, or collected and shoved together into a hole. Although they can be recovered, once devoid of their archaeological context, they lose most of the new information that we can learn from them.
What is done is sadly done, however, and it is impossible to guard every inch of the desert, but there are many lessons to be learnt from these events. It is important to move forward while making necessary reforms.
Guards protecting sites must be better paid. They also need to be better trained and equipped to deal with looters. Their gusto will not stand up to a machine gun. Better facilities for archaeological storehouses are vital. Although over recent decades there has been a huge initiative to upgrade both the guards and the storehouses, it is obviously not enough. Better measures of documentation also need to be applied. One of the problems facing authorities now is that in many cases they just do not know what has been looted, particularly from the storehouses, as only a few have had their contents documented and registered.
In the future, all objects need to be registered before storage, and although this is the theoretical practice, it needs to be more forcefully applied. If they are marked with a registration number, or at least the initials of their site or recovery context (in a discreet spot on the object!), then it will be easier to find out where they came from in the event that they are stolen.
What about the areas that weren’t looted? What can we learn from them? A Nubian friend living on Elephantine Island, Aswan, told me that when he heard about the looting across the country he asked his friends at the local coffee shop, ‘What are we going to do to protect our island and our antiquities?’ The young men responded, ‘Just let anyone come to the Island, and we will deal with them and protect our land’. This is a community that feels responsible for its land, antiquities, houses, and people. Perhaps it is their minority status, or their marginalization. Whatever the case may be, they feel that the land, with all that is above and below it, is their responsibility.
A Nubian man from the village of Shellal, on the small reservoir lake north of the high dam, came up to me as I was working there, and engaged me in a conversation about the antiquities, to voice his concerns about the looting around the country. He pointed to an antiquities storeroom in their village, and to a series of large temple blocks stored outside. ‘If these blocks were anywhere else in Egypt’, he said, ‘they would have been vandalized. It is the responsibility of each community to protect what it has, and these antiquities are our responsibility’. Education is clearly the most important step to ensure the protection of antiquities. People need to learn about what they have in order to feel responsible for it. Antiquities should no longer be regarded as piles of stone, brick, or some scattered bones. They should no longer be just remnants of a pagan past. Archaeologists and specialists – Egyptians and foreigners alike – excavating sites should take steps to integrate the community, to gather locals around and show them what they are studying. Only by opening a dialogue and involving the real guardians of this heritage, those who live next to it and come from it, will it ever be protected in times of real crisis.
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Mennat-Allah El Dorry is an Egyptologist specialized in archaeobotanical analysis. Much of her research has revolved around food and trying to reconstruct how people in the past cooked and ate. She is currently editing the proceedings of an international conference on food in Egypt and Sudan that she organized in 2018 in cooperation with the Institut français d’archéologie orientale and the Polish Centre for Mediterranean Archaeology. Instagram: eatlikeanegyptian