Posted by Kate Phizackerley on Monday, March 14, 2011

While the present wave of looting is certainly worrying - and most especially at Abydos - with media restrictions relaxed, more evidence is starting to emerge that looting has been an ongoing problem for several years now.  For instance the Egyptian Chronicle has reported long-term threats to several sites:

These violations have been happening for the past decade and officials haven't done anything about it. When the revolution erupted, the Antiquities Police and the cultural officials working here disappeared, which has only exacerbated the problem. 

There is more news in that article.  Most of it is only single sourced, but it certainly makes grim reading.  Then there are stories like this one about the Mausoleum of Mohamed Cherif Pasha in Cairo:
In the past ten years, various artifacts have been reported missing. In 2004, the illuminated copy of the Quran was replaced by incomplete copies of various folios, and the investigating Awqaf committee informed Sabit that the inventory did not specify that the Quran was handwritten or illuminated. An Awqaf inspector told Sabit that “one Koran was as good as another.” A police report was filed, yet investigators concluded that no wrongdoing had occurred. This encouraged Sabit to create a complete photographic archive of the items in the mausoleum.
In 2008, various items, including the handwritten calligraphic scrolls, were removed from the mausoleum by the Higher Council of Islamic Antiquities, and Sabit still does not know their whereabouts.
Sadly as the article reveals, the Mausoleum was completely stripped of all its remaining furniture and artifacts during the present crisis. 

It is hard because there has been a lot of disinformation out of Egypt over the past six weeks.  It's got to the stage where I am sceptical about almost everything - including obviously even these reports.  Nonetheless a picture is emerging that archaeological sites have been suffering rather more badly over the past decade than the SCA over that time reported to the media, both in terms of illegal digging and the building of houses.  There has indeed been a terrible step up in some areas over the past few weeks;  however, I think that reports which present site damage and looting purely as a new phenomenon have a political edge.  My personal impression is that the damage to sites should be considered as an ongoing problem which has escalated in part because of recent reduced security, but also in part because a culture of site damage has been permitted to persist over the past decade and because the SCA has not been particularly vigilant in maintaining the security of some sites.

Some people have suggested that some of the present looting of stores might be intended to cover up earlier illicit removal of antiquities.  I have seen no evidence to support this accusation, but reading the Mausoleum story for example, it is very easy to see that some individuals in that case might benefit if it is now impossible to show what was removed over the past decade. 


Anonymous said...

Now that Hawass has resigned; who does this site blame for the misinformation coming out?


Kate Phizackerley said...

Ron, I don't think you need to look at any individual. Polictical tensions in Egypt remain high and many source have potenial reasons to "spin" stories, whether that is exaggerating damage to make the post-Mubarak situation look bad, or to counter that with stories of Mubarak-era looting. I am not accusing any individual, just warning readers to be sceptical of any unverified report. Most are probably accurate, but at present caution is semsible.

I feel every new article I write at present should be stuffed full of "possibly" and "maybe" and "it depends" and "unconfirmed report" and similar caveats, and I try, I really do. I am just trying to get across that at present those aren't formulaic words, but a genuine attempt to warn readers that reporting antiquities news at present is not a normal environment - reports are published in the context of a somewhat confused political environment.

tim said...

Cannot say any of this surprises me and agree with the idea of caution in reading too seriously no matter where the article comes from.

The void left by Mubarak is now being fought over and certainly include those who would seek the return of the dictator. Propaganda should not be underestimated in this environment.

I keep reading how antiquities police "disappeared" during the revolution and find this hard to believe. Probably it is not good to pay someone two dollars a day to guard a million dollars in artifacts?

The prohibition on the selling of expensive antiquities especially those that have provenances removes a valuable source of income to Egypt's antiquities service. Income which could be used to pay workers and preserve Egypt's cultural heritage.

Dr. Nicole Hansen said...

Kate-Leaving aside the specifics of antiquities theft and turning to crime in general, you are on to something here. The regime did cover up crime and other negative things and many people bought into it, hence the silly foreigner mantra, "I can walk in the streets of Cairo safely at midnight" that one always hears and which really was always a naive and untrue statement. First of all, crime of any kind was never reported on national TV, and rarely in the government newspapers. One had to rely on the non-governmental press. We started to see a crack in that when men started to set themselves on fire in January. Finally the government admitted the real annual attempted suicide rates at 100k, which I was not surprised at based on my husband having previously worked in an emergency room at a hospital here. The straw that broke the camel's back was the night of January 29, when the army was clearly in control, and they broadcast on state television looters, their loot, their weapons and full names and personal details. Now we have freedom of press more or less even though some of it is inaccurate and this means crimes are getting reported. Put in that context, we should not be surprised if theft of antiquities and illicit digging have been covered up for a long time as well.

Kate Phizackerley said...

That was something that struck me very strongly while reporting antiquities during the revolution. Even the British media had grasped that official (pro-Mubarak) Egyptian Government reports where inaccurate and full of disinformaton, but everybody seemed convinced that the Minister for Antiquities could be trusted.


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