Posted by Kate Phizackerley on Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Andie Byrnes carried this statement from the Egypt Cultural Heritage Organization on Egyptology News at their request.  It seems important that it is shared as widely as possible, so I have decided to repeat it here.  No copyright infringemet is intended.

Egypt is rich in cultural heritage that can be traced from the remote prehistoric past through the various stages of world civilisation. Ancient Egypt's monuments link us to the past and make us aware of past human achievements. It is our duty to protect and preserve this heritage so that we, and future generations, can share in this historical legacy of our predecessors.

The Nile Valley and Delta were the birthplace of one of the first and most resilient of the great civilizations. In the course of its long and distinguished history, Egypt has bequeathed to us a legacy of spectacular monuments and a dazzling array of artefacts. However, unimposing sites and objects of everyday life also provide an invaluable insight to the various aspects of ancient Egyptian society and are just as important as the more spectacular sites and 'treasures'. Today, such archaeological sites and monuments all over Egypt are facing one of the biggest threats since the Second World War. With the revolutionary demonstrations now taking place some opportunistic looters are taking advantage of Egypt’s turmoil. However, more structured looting by organised criminals also seems to have taken place. The archaeological record is a finite resource, which is easily destroyed without due care and respect.
The wave of social uprisings against authoritarian regimes started by the martyrdom of Mohammed Bouzizi in Tunisia has now moved to Egypt. Although most of the media attention has been focused on Cairo, demonstrations have been occurring throughout the country. Along with these demonstrations some people have grabbed the opportunity to profit out of other people’s misery. Many groups have arisen to protect their property, livelihoods and their lives. However, this transitional crisis period will not last forever and when Egypt emerges at the other end the majority of people want a functional country, one with their heritage still intact! The vast majority of the protesters only want a their human rights, dignity and freedom so that they can attain a better standard of living, along with free and fair democratic elections; some have already paid with their lives for this ideal.

Looting and wanton destruction of Egypt’s cultural heritage has been widespread, with many rumours circulating. As we are writing reports of looting keep coming in, our Egyptian colleagues helped by the local population are trying their hardest to keep the situation under control. However the lack of manpower is taking its toll and we are now aware that the Memphis Museum and magazine in South Saqqara have been looted. The staff at Saqqara rang Wafaa el-Sadik, the ex-director of the Cairo Museum in desperation for advice as they were unable to stop the looters. The museum at Memphis consists of a sculpture garden, where a colossus of Ramesses II is held in a special shelter, with other smaller objects at the actual Museum. It is currently unclear as to the extent of the looting and whether the looters were able to steal major objects or simply those more portable items in the display cases. It appears that only the nearby Imhotep Museum and adjacent central areas were being guarded by the military at this point, although the security has now been extended to the whole of the area. The magazine at Abusir has also been looted, as has the one at Qantara near the Suez Canal where a large group, armed with guns and a truck, entered the store, opened the boxes in the magazine and took many artefacts. Attempted break-ins also occurred at several other museums in the country, including the Coptic Museum, the Royal Jewellery Museum, the National Museum of Alexandria and the El-Manial Museum. Hawass said none of the attempts were successful. It is hard at this point to verify all information, but it is clear the situation is continuing and all monuments and storerooms are under threat. The Bibliotheca Alexandrina is safe thanks to Egypt’s youth, whether they were staff of the Library or the representatives of the demonstrators, who joined in guarding the building from potential vandals and looters. However, the library like the museums will be closed to the public for the next few days until the curfew is lifted and the situation improves.

The authorities elsewhere are taking precautions to secure antiquities with the military restricting access to the pyramids at Giza. However, the vast amount of sites in Egypt makes this an impossible task at every site. Although the monuments in Luxor, on both the East and West Bank are now being protected by the military assisted by caring members of the local community, with barriers also having been erected, a group of looters attempted to enter Karnak temple on Friday but were repelled by local citizens. However, there are an incredible number of sites and monuments everywhere in Egypt, as well as the countless artefacts in museums and storerooms requiring protection. Dr Zahi Hawass has stated that all 24 national museums were now under the protection of the Army. However, there are many more local museums and magazines that are under threat.

At the Cairo Museum located in Tahrir Square in the midst of some of the most intense of the mass anti-government protests sweeping across the capital the situation is stable, but things could get worse. Near to the museum is the large tower block that serves as the headquarters of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) was set ablaze and after that the five-star Conrad Hotel. Although the fires are now out, while the buildings were blazing it caused a great threat to the museum. At 6 pm on Friday after virtually all police abandoned their posts, people began to climb over the walls, about a thousand would-be looters started entering the grounds surrounding the museum and forced open the doors and entered the museum's vast souvenir shop. The only damage that these looters managed to do appears to have been to the ticket office and the museum gift shop was cleared of all its trinkets and books. The perpetrators of the looting of this gift shop appear to have been security guards and tourist police who had removed their uniforms. Although the actions of certain members of the tourist police and museum guards are indefensible under any circumstances, as Dr el-Sadik stated, “these are poorly paid members of staff, some receiving as little as L.E. 250 (£30) per month, not having enough money to clothe and feed their families”.

The valiant efforts of ordinary Egyptian citizens taking a stand to protect the heritage of which they are so proud, here forming a ring around the Cairo Museum. Although some damage has been done, it could have been much worse without their help. Other people are taking stands in Luxor and elsewhere to protect their heritage from would-be looters (Source AFP).

A group of nine criminals broke into the actual museum, apparently entering it from the back, up a fire escape before coming in through the skylight, descending into the building via ropes late on the night of Friday 28th January. These would-be looters in their lust for profit managed to vandalise two mummies by ripping their heads off, originally erroneously reported as Yuya and Thuya (grandparents of Tutankhamun). Other display-cases were attacked and several other artefacts, including jewellery, cosmetic and toiletry items, a wooden boat from the tomb of Meseti at Asyut, Middle Kingdom models of daily life including a boat also from the tomb of Meseti, a shabti figurine, a bronze statuette of the Apis bull, a faience hippo figurine from Lisht and a fan belonging to Tutankhamun were also smashed and sarcophagi were displaced. Three gilded statues from the tomb of Tutankhamun were also badly damaged, one depicting him riding a jaguar, another of him fishing in a papyrus skiff and the third possibly a standing statue of the boy king. At least 13 Late period showcases on the museum's top floor were smashed before the criminals entered the famous King Tutankhamun galleries and smashed another case. The damage to other antiquities is still unclear, but Middle Kingdom cases were also attacked. The museum is full of very fragile artefacts: wigs, papyri, linen items, and thousands of other organic objects that cannot be moved, let alone withstand careless handling. These mindless criminals were mainly looking for gold artefacts, which is why Tutankhamun’s gilded statues were targeted. Whilst these criminals were running amok in the museum a large group of the protesters, some armed with truncheons taken from the police, formed a protective human chain outside the museum's main gates early on Saturday morning. These protestors had taken it upon themselves to guard Egypt’s cultural heritage from opportunistic looters. This human cordon remained in place until soldiers rounded up the would-be looters. About 100 artefacts appear to have been broken, and the keys to the museum were also stolen. According to Dr Hawass the majority of the museum’s exhibits remain unaffected, including the remainder of the Tutankhamun exhibit. Not all the tourist police appear to have joined in, and three conscientious officials who had stayed behind in the museum throughout the night had caught and bound one of the nine looters who had smashed through the roof. Zahi Hawass has reassured the world that nothing was stolen from the Cairo Museum and that the damage appeared limited, other reports indicate some jewellery may have been taken. The grounds of the museum are now patrolled by Egyptian military, which we hope will protect it from any further looting episodes. It appears now that about 50 people have been arrested in connection with these attempted looting cases.
The looting of finite cultural heritage is not the way to bring about social change and improve the standard of life, for theft goes against all Islamic and Christian ideals and teachings as well as Egyptian law. The security at museums was highlighted last year, after the theft of a Van Gogh painting from an art gallery in Cairo, seemingly orchestrated by fifteen Egyptian officials, including the director of the museum and the head of the fine arts department at the Ministry of Culture. As widespread looting of other buildings in Cairo has been reported, the concerns of the government, as well as the majority of the crowd in the streets over the safekeeping of Egypt’s cultural heritage are well-grounded. Moreover, as the prison near the Faiyum was opened and common criminals escaped, the potential for greater loss has increased.

More serious than the looting of museums and magazines are the reports of that most destructive of crimes against cultural heritage, the looting of archaeological sites. At both Abusir and Saqqara many sealed tombs have been entered by thieves, destroying many of the tombs interiors and taking artefacts. Some of these tombs at Saqqara act as storerooms for many of the artefacts excavated from the tombs of the Old Kingdom officials. The storerooms at Abusir contain many royal artefacts excavated from the royal burial ground, which contains the majority of the pyramids of the Vth Dynasty kings. Large gangs of men have been reported as digging day and night at these sites. The situation at present is still unclear whether the army has now secured this region or not, although they have been informed of this activity. Saqqara, the main cemetery for the ancient capital of Memphis has priceless tombs from Egypt’s entire history, from the First Dynasty until the Coptic era. It is essential that this site is protected at all costs. Before the site of Giza was secured some archaeological equipment seems to have been stolen, and that some damage seems to have been done to the antiquities, although the extent is not known at this point. Looting is not a new phenomenon in Egypt, although the scale and audacity of the looting is on a scale never before seen in the country. Having seen one such site in the Faiyum that had been looted in 2003, where parts of mummies littered the surface, purposely smashed artefacts strewn all around, and a site that looked like a moonscape it is heartbreaking to think of the potential damage to Saqqara and other sites. The looting of any site results in artefacts and monuments loosing their contexts and as such their archaeological value. Once removed from their context they loose their ability to provide potential information about the people who made the cultural heritage. It is still unclear what is happening at the thousands of sites throughout the country, but the SCA inspectors are promising to protect their own sites with the aide of the military.

Although the situation in Egypt is nowhere near as bad as that which unfolded in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, when thousands of artefacts were looted and many sites destroyed, the situation is still serious. There are unscrupulous people that are determined to make the most of this situation and line their own pockets whilst robbing Egypt and the world of invaluable items of cultural heritage. Several antiquities and monuments have been saved due to the efforts ordinary Egyptians, but also due to the efforts of the 3,000 people directly employed by the SCA, as well as others that work in the heritage industry. From what we have learned from the situation in Iraq, which threatens to be repeated in Egypt, regardless of the fact that the majority of the Egyptians are proud of their long history and are very protective of their cultural heritage, the situation calls for creating an international action response plan to protect the cultural heritage in these situations. In the current troubles where there is widespread looting of shops and violence, and a long curfew aimed at preventing movement of people, the majority of Egypt’s citizens have other priorities. However, a country can only hope to progress in the future if it understands and learns from its past. Although many Egyptians want to assert a new identity, they also seem to want it built on their historic past.

Dr Hawass is now directing a team to assess the damage at Saqqara and other outlying sites where archaeological digs have been conducted. We hereby call on the British Government, the US Government and European Governments to send teams to help the Supreme Council of Antiquities to help make these damage reports and help with restorations as soon as it is safe to do so. ECHO is willing to participate in a co-ordinated effort by Dr Hawass, hopefully in combination with UNESCO in assessing and rectifying damage to cultural heritage. This will be a very costly process and will require emergency governmental funds. However, at present all excavations with foreign personnel appear to have been temporally halted, such as those at Abydos, Amarna, Luxor and Giza. Some of the teams are waiting for flights out of the country, whereas others are sitting tight trying to protect their sites. However, the general feeling is that this will soon be resolved and that operations will again shortly be resumed, the teams of archaeologists are determined to support Egypt and its people in its hour of need, just as many supported us when we needed them.

Dr Hawass and his team of dedicated archaeologist aided by local community members and the military are trying their best to protect the sites and monuments, but it is inevitable that some antiquities will make their way on to the illicit antiquities market. Many antiquities are world famous and well published making them harder to sell; however, there are many hundreds of thousands that are not that well published and even more that have not been excavated as part of an organised legitimate excavation. There are probably some unscrupulous antiquities dealers and private collectors who are rubbing their hands at the prospect of attaining new Egyptian antiquities, it is the responsibility of all decent law abiding people to be diligent. If any Egyptian antiquities are offered for sale that have a dubious provenance it is the responsibility of every museum and individual to report the sellers straight away to the proper authorities. In the USA the officials from the Department of Homeland Security, in the UK Her Majesties Customs and Excise must be extra diligent. The free ports in Switzerland as well as those in other European countries and Japan should all be working with Egyptologists and the SCA to ensure that those responsible are brought to justice and that no illicit antiquities enter their countries. These criminals must not be allowed to profit from their crimes against humanity. If you suspect that an antiquity is looted or you see any looting taking place you should contact the police, the Art Lost Register, Interpol, CultNat or the SCA, failing that you can contact Dr Marina Apaydin, Deputy Director Management, UNESCO World Heritage Centre at m.apaydin@unesco.org, Monica Hanna Monica_h@aucegypt.edu, Monica.hanna@gmail.com, 00393282069816 or ECHO on egyptianheritage@yahoo.co.uk and we will notify the correct legal authorities on your behalf. Our friends at Looting Matters will also be monitoring this situation very closely. Although this comment from ECHO focuses on archaeological sites, artefacts and museums in Egypt, our first concerns are for the Egyptian people who have demonstrated their wish for social change. There are many heroes in Egypt, some of whom are our friends and colleagues, that are helping to protect Egypt’s heritage, for it is the world’s heritage, and the world send their thanks to all of you.

May God be with the good people of Egypt; our thoughts and prayers are with you!

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