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Looting in Egypt: Who is to blame? Mubarak? Hawass? The Antiquities Market?

In fact, varying levels of blame can be spread far and wide, but at this moment, there are bigger fish to fry.  In the wake of the Egyptian revolution, reports emerge almost daily about the state of archaeological sites and antiquities.  Despite the Egyptian people stoically standing guard over their heritage, several sites have been attacked by organized gangs of armed looters.  Earlier this week, for instance, the warehouses of the Amenhotep III excavations in Thebes were overtaken and guards were tied up and incapacitated as thieves made off with statuary.  Quick action by local Egyptian authorities in Luxor resulted in the recovery of these important objects within 24 hours of being stolen.  Several articles have appeared this week focused on the looting, the impetus behind it, and what is being done about it, and it seemed helpful to gather them.

UNESCO has sent a delegation to Egypt that is now assessing the sites to determine how they can assist the authorities.  Although UNESCO’s presence in Egypt is somewhat controversial, initial reports are positive.

Yesterday, a UNESCO delegation led by Christian Manhart, chief of the Museums and Cultural Objects Section within UNESCO, embarked on a three-day tour of archaeological sites subject to looting during and since Egypt’s 25 January Revolution. The tour includes the Egyptian Museum as well as the Memphis necropolis, and covers the Giza plateau, Saqqara, Abusir and Dahshur archaeological sites.

Manhart went on to say that the UNESCO visit was wrongly reflected in the media. “We did not come to Egypt in an inspecting tour, as was written, but to extend a helping hand to Egyptians to restitute their missing heritage,” declared Manhart.

“We are here mostly to assure the Egyptian authorities of our support in terms of protecting the country’s historical and cultural heritage, and also to meet new people in charge and establish contact with them.”

NPR summarized the concerns for Egyptian antiquities and ArtInfo reported on the extent of the looting.

Prominent Egyptologist, Barry Kemp, was interviewed by New Scientist magazine about his sites at Amarna (which remain happily undamaged) and the looting in general.

How serious is looting at other sites across the country?
Archaeological sites are normally protected by the Tourist and Antiquities Police. All branches of internal security seem to have been disrupted and in the atmosphere of uncertainty the wolves have come out. The main targets of robbers are the antiquities storerooms. It is impossible to know at the moment how bad the overall situation is.

The most useful thing the international community can do about this is to examine its conscience. The looting of sites is done to satisfy the market in antiquities, which continues to flourish in Europe and the US. It is now a reasonable assumption that any Egyptian piece that is for sale is either fake or was looted.

This report from an Egyptian antiquities inspector at Giza appeared in The Art Newspaper.

Giza, home to the Great Pyramids, had two storage facilities broken into in the wave of attacks on antiquities overtaking Egypt during the revolution. As the news broke I rushed to the site (where I am based as an antiquities inspector) to offer my help. I was not alone: many other inspectors and other employees had left the safety of their homes with the same thoughts.

Egypt is riddled with archaeological sites and many remained virtually unscathed due to the inspectors and residents of the surrounding towns and villages endangering their lives to protect sites, storage locations and museums, as was the case at Beni Suef and Fayum.

We continue to work everyday on the makeshift salvage operation in Giza. Volunteers regularly turn up and, as we work, stories are exchanged about the looting where gangs of armed men attacked and shot the guards and plundered the site.

The work we are conducting is not only physically draining but also emotionally exhausting. My anger is initially directed at the looters and my thoughts keep returning to the same question: why are these criminals, who are Egyptians, looting their own history and their nation’s pride in order to sell it? Only if they stand to gain substantially would they go as far, feeding a market that is standing ready and prepared to amply reward them for their troubles; the better the object, the bigger the reward.

No indication of the market for antiquities is clearer than in the selection of the sites targeted by the looters in the past few months in Egypt. The overwhelming majority is Pharaonic, followed by Islamic, with Coptic and Jewish so far remaining untouched. We are struggling to protect our sites, facing armed men while we have nothing but sticks, because of a demand from personal collections (both inside and outside Egypt) and from rival institutions seeking a competitive edge.

We are paying the price for a greedy, insatiable and unregulated market.

That last quote goes to the heart of the matter.

In the face of these continued attacks, Egyptian archaeologists threatened to strike until an official appointment of a minister to oversee the situation.

Egyptian archaeologists threatened to organize a strike and sit-in on Sunday if a ministry official is not immediately appointed to take charge of archeology-related affairs. The threat came in light of the repeated thefts and lootings of Egyptian artifacts and relics.

The archeologists sent a letter to Prime Minister Essam Sharaf in which they demanded the appointment of either a minister or a head of an independent body affiliated to the Council of Ministers.

Today, an inventory report from storage magazines in northern Egypt revealed that more than 800 objects were stolen from Qantara during an armed assault on the 29th of January.

For up to date reports on archaeological sites, the Egyptological Looting Database remains the place to go.

The George Washington University has issued a Call for Action to Protect Egyptian Antiquities, petitioning for specific actions from the President of the United States and Congress, which has been signed by many Egyptologists.  You can add your name to the GWU petition here.

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The Art of Counting is dedicated to the memory of Margery Meilleur, who first taught me to view history through the eyes of the images we create.