Revolution Brings Hard Times for Egypt's Treasures
By FARAH HALIME
Published: October 31, 2012
CAIRO — Cairo’s salmon-colored Egyptian museum is a conspicuous landmark on Tahrir Square, where it stands in almost perfect condition despite the intense protests that took place on its doorstep almost two years ago.
At the height of the revolution last year, a human chain formed to protect the priceless artifacts within the museum. A few yards away, the burnt out husk of former President Hosni Mubarak’s National Democratic Party headquarters is a reminder of a different possible fate.
But the revolutionary, carnival enthusiasm of the square has since given way to neglect and disrepair and the difficult job of retrieving stolen antiquities is proving to be an uphill struggle.
Despite the efforts of its protectors, looters managed to make off with 50 of the museum’s treasures, including a statue of King Tutankhamun carried by a goddess, and a sandstone head of a princess from Amarna, a vast archaeological site in the southern province of Minya.
Of the stolen pieces, 29 have since been recovered. The most valuable, a statue of the Pharaoh Akhenaten, was found by a protester soon after it was taken and returned to the museum, the Antiquities Ministry said at the time.
At the same time, however, reports have started to come in of sophisticated and systematic looting occurring across major Egyptian archaeological sites, according to Egyptian and U.S. officials involved in the repatriation of antiquities.
The number of illegal excavations and thefts has worsened to the point that groups are organizing heavy machinery to carry out extensive digs.
“This wasn’t just someone taking their shovels and digging holes in the sand,” said Deborah Lehr, chairman of the Capitol Archaeological Institute at George Washington University, who has been charged with helping the Egyptian government protect its antiquities. “These were bulldozers, and gangs of men over a period of time.”
Illegal digs have long been a problem for Egypt, where 5,000 years of history lie buried: but since the start of the uprising against Mr. Mubarak in early 2011, the number has ballooned. The collapse of security has emboldened criminals to target landmark areas without fear of reprisals. Illegal digging has taken place near the Great Pyramids in Giza and the grand temples of the southern city of Luxor.
Satellite images from before and after the revolution show a marked increase in looter holes: in fact, parts of the landscape are starting to look like “Swiss cheese,” Ms. Lehr said.
Attempts are being made to clamp down on the thefts with more stringent laws. The Shura Council, Egypt’s upper house of Parliament, has asked the government to issue new regulations to protect archaeological heritage sites from theft and smuggling. The antiquities ministry says it is modifying legislation to cope with the problem.
Osama El Nahas, who heads the ministry’s department tasked with recovering stolen artifacts, says the most immediate solution is to enlist the help of international organizations.
“We are due to sign agreements with countries including Mexico and other Arab countries in the next few weeks,” covering repatriation of stolen objects, he said. Egypt was also working closely with the United States and Europe, where many stolen pieces end up, he added.
“In this critical moment we need the help of the international community to return Egypt’s treasures,” Mr. El Nahas said.
But with the country struggling to get a grip on a long list of more pressing problems, including the widest budget deficit in the Middle East, a ballooning balance of payments deficit and drawn-out negotiations over international loans, its antiquities risk being forgotten.
After a meeting in Cairo in May last year, Ms. Lehr and her team worked out a proposal with the Egyptian government to provide training and equipment for making inventories of the country’s antiquities and digitizing the existing records.
But nearly 18 months later that agreement has yet to be officially approved by the Egyptian authorities. Until that happens, the project remains stalled.
“We want to make sure that we have a signed and cleared agreement by the Egyptian government before we move forward. We are optimistic and hopeful that it will happen soon,” Ms. Lehr said.
The push to curb the illicit excavation and sale of the country’s treasures is potentially very important for Egypt, where tourism has traditionally been one of the top foreign currency earners, accounting for more than one-tenth of the country’s gross domestic product before the revolution.
For tourists who want to visit Egypt’s antiquities, immortalized in historic towns such as Luxor and Aswan, the missing artifacts are another black mark against a destination already hit by political insecurity.
Last year, during the worst period of instability for decades, tourism revenues dropped by almost a quarter to $9 billion, from $12.5 billion in 2010. Once-popular destinations were deserted.
In an attempt to revive the industry, the government has reopened some sites and pyramids that were previously closed, including the Serapeum of Saqqara, a subterranean necropolis where bulls were believed to have been buried in giant sarcophagi. The site had been closed for a decade for renovation.
The Pyramid of Chefren, the second largest pyramid in the Giza necropolis, and around six other ancient tombs at the Giza site have also reopened after a long restoration project.
Egypt’s tourism minister, Hisham Zaazou, said that while short-stay beach holidays along the Red Sea coast make up the bulk of tourist activity in Egypt, long-haul markets — where tourists fly in from as far afield as China and the United States and tend to stay longer — are crucial to earning much-needed revenue.
“That’s why preserving these monuments, which are actually a man-made heritage, is extremely important for us,” Mr. Zaazou said.
Yet archaeologists in Egypt say the government is still doing far too little to protect the nation’s monuments. They are keeping a close eye on auction houses, looking out for stolen artifacts.
Zahi Hawass, who was promoted to become minister of antiquities in a cabinet shake-up as the revolution got underway, was among the first people to make his way to the Egyptian museum as protests broke out in Tahrir Square.
But fast forward almost two years, and Mr. Hawass, who has been replaced as minister, has spent months as the target of an investigation into corruption allegations that he has denied.
“The most important thing Egypt doesn’t have is a strategy,” Mr. Hawass said in an interview in his Cairo office, lined with glossy Egyptology books, several of which he has written himself.
Mr. Hawass, whose normally bright white hair was dyed with a purple tinge, appeared emotional at times, with his voice breaking and eyes tearing up.
“I’m not a politician, I’m an archaeologist for everyone. What is more important, above anything else, is not me or the people, it’s the monuments,” he said.
Mr. Hawass, who often likens himself to Indiana Jones, was one of Egypt’s top archaeologists while also earning himself a celebrity reputation through his often flamboyant behavior. Since the revolution, he has come under attack because of his closeness to the former regime and allegations that he profited from deals relating to his archaeological work.
Dismissing those attacks, he said Egypt’s heritage was better protected under his watch than now.
“I had the passion and the determination,” he said. “ I’m not sure the people who are doing the job now have it.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: November 1, 2012
A previous version of this article incorrectly named a U.S archaeological institute involved in protection efforts. It is the Capitol Archaeological Institute, not the Capitol Hill Archaeological Institute.