Egypt’s rich and ancient history has been standing for over 5000 years, as evidenced by the great pyramids. Who would suspect that it could ever be threatened? In actuality, looters have been picking away at the antiquities of Egypt for thousands of years, like ocean waves lapping at the base of an intricate sand castle. Recently, however, there has been a disconcerting uptick in this attack on our world’s shared culture.
Political unrest in Egypt has set the stage for loss of control over the land’s artifacts. According to U.C. Berkeley archaeologist Carol Redmount, who has been excavating and examining sites in Egypt for over 20 years, the increased looting of these archaeological sites began when former President Mubarak was forced to leave the country in early 2011 and has not slowed in the year and a half since.
During the regime change, many police, military personnel, and local guards were re-deployed to deal with the intense rioting. Some even walked off the job. Consequently cultural sites, precious artifacts, museums, and tombs were left unprotected. In June 2012, Dr. Redmount invited NBC News Richard Engel to ride with her through Al-Heba, a town 180 miles south of Cairo where she has been working, so that he could see for himself the extent of this wanton destruction. Here, at one tomb site, the entire hillside had been dug up in hundreds of places by looters. On the ground were randomly discarded mummified bodies that had been unearthed in the race for anticipated treasures.
South of Cairo is not the only area where this is transpiring. Thieves have even looted areas around the Great Pyramids in Giza and the Luxor temples, reports Major-General Abdel-Rahim Hassan, commander of the Tourism and Antiquities Police Department.
In May 2012, Egyptian police arrested two men for digging a 10-meter deep hole under their homes, which were just behind the temple of Khnum in the southern town of Esna, There police found hieroglyphic inscriptions dating back to the Ptolemaic dynasty and ancient clay pots. Had these artifacts been removed and sold illegally, both Egypt and the world community would have lost another irreplaceable piece of its history.
Egypt’s Interior Ministry has reported 5697 cases of illegal digging since the anti-Mubarak uprising began shortly into 2011. This is a shocking 100 times more than the previous year. During this time, illegal trading in antiquities has mushroomed to 1467 cases. According to the AP, these are only the cases that the Interior Ministry was able to track down.
With so little manpower to staunch the flow of antiquities out of Egypt, this situation continues to grow worse. Amid political turmoil, a recent disputed election, and police and military personnel preoccupied elsewhere, what can be done to protect and preserve the ancient Egyptian culture?
Egypt’s loss is our loss because Egypt’s history is an integral part of our global history. We need to act. As SAFE continues to expand its influence and be joined by archaeological activists and patrons, we will work to support local government organizations like the Interior Ministry and the Tourism and Antiquities Police Department to stem this illegal activity and to provide security for Egypt’s antiquities. Join our cause on Facebook and Say YES to Egypt’s Heritage.