Monday, June 17, 2013
CAIRO, ABU SIR: Unchecked looting guts Egypt’s heritage, with one ancient site ‘70 percent gone’
ABU SIR AL MALAQ, Egypt — A wispy-haired mummy's head, bleached skulls, and arm and leg bones are piled outside looted tombs.A mummified hand with leathery-skinned fingers pokes from the sand.
Ancient burial wrappings from mummified bodies — torn apart to find priceless jewelry — unravel across the desert like brown ribbon, or tangle near broken bits of wooden coffins still brightly painted after nearly 3,000 years underground.With bones scattered everywhere, this 500-acre plot looks like the aftermath of a massacre rather than an ancient burial ground.
“You see dogs playing with human bones, children scavenging for pottery,” says Egyptian archaeologist Monica Hanna, stepping cautiously around grisly remains and deep pits dug into tombs by looters.
Salima Ikram, an expert in tombs and mummification who heads the Egyptology unit at American University in Cairo, gasps in horror in her home while examining Tribune-Review photographs of the site.“These scattered remains … brutally pulled apart in search of one shiny piece of metal,” Ikram says in disgust.
“This is most horrific — someone's ribs!” she suddenly exclaims. “Oh, God! It's like the killing fields!”
Thieves, explorers and archaeologists have raided Egypt's ancient sites for centuries. The Tribune-Review first reported in February that the looting had become a free-for-all after a 2011 revolution toppled one government and introduced continuing turmoil.The tomb raiding threatens some of Egypt's — and the world's — most revered and valuable heritage sites, many of which have never been properly studied or catalogued, experts say. A few experts privately accuse the Muslim Brotherhood-led government of President Mohamed Morsy of ignoring the threat.
Some Islamist religious leaders have contributed to the frenzy by ordering “pagan” antiquities to be destroyed, or issuing directives on the “correct” Islamic way to loot them.
Police and local authorities insist they are overwhelmed by lawlessness and outgunned by criminal gangs with heavy weapons smuggled from Libya.
Meanwhile, the threatened heritage is a low priority for many Egyptians beset by daily electrical outages, fuel shortages, higher food prices, rising street crime and political instability.
For others, that heritage is a chance to cash in. Looted objects are sold in dirt-poor villages near sites such as Abu Sir al Malaq; others go to wealthy collectors, particularly in the United States, Europe, Japan and the Middle East, experts say.
Last week, Egypt's new antiquities minister pledged to improve security “at all archaeological sites and museums.”
But that appears to be too little too late for the sprawling cemetery complex, or necropolis, in the governorate of Bani Suef. Of three sites examined by the Trib – the others are Dahshour and El-Hibeh – it is the most extensively ravaged.