Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Crisis Facing Cultural Heritage in Egypt: Reports from Two Egyptologists

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill are once again urged to adopt an Emergency Protection of Egyptian Cultural Antiquities Act (EPECAA). A law implementing import restrictions on trafficked ancient Egyptian heritage is needed because the danger to archaeological, cultural, and religious sites in that country remains clear and present.

Recently calling attention to this threat are two Egyptologists. They are Dr. Salima Ikram, professor at the American University in Cairo, and Dr. Monica Hanna, the 2014 SAFE Beacon Award winner

Both Ikram and Hanna have published articles in the latest Journal of Eastern Mediterranean Archaeology & Heritage Studies (V.1, No. 4, 2013), which build on their initial descriptions of the heritage crisis in this summer's Bulletin of the American Research in Egypt (No. 202, Summer 2013).

Ikram and Hanna write that looting and land grabbing are ravaging Egypt. Hanna describes several incidents of destruction; she writes:
  • In the area of ancient Memphis, south of Cairo, the villagers are digging unexplored areas of the necropolis, especially in Abu Rawash. In the Memphite necropolis, storehouses containing antiquities have been attacked, despite the wall around the site protecting it from illegal occupation. 
  • Abusir was looted systematically and continuously by mafia groups and local looters. Right after the events of January 2011, the local sheikh incited people to destroy and loot the site of the ancient infidels. New tombs have been discovered, but archaeologists have not able to access them; thus, looters have destroyed most of the archaeological record.
  • At Abusir el-Malaq, a site notorious for repeated theft, looters have created impressive heaps of human bones, fragments of mummies, and broken sarcophagi.
  • Ansina, a Coptic site where villagers believe the rock-cut monastic settlement houses gold treasures, has been heavily looted using dynamite.
Because of these reports and many others, museums, auction houses, dealers, and collectors should remain vigilant against knowingly receiving illegal antiquities that freshly appear on the market from Egypt. Meaningful due diligence that carefully scrutinizes the chain of custody of Egyptian material offered for sale and that critically examines the source of provenance information should be utilized to curb the unwitting or unlawful receipt of stolen heritage.

The introduction and adoption of EPECAA, meanwhile, would focus necessary public attention on this urgent matter while supplying U.S. authorities with an additional, specifically-tailored enforcement tool to combat transnational trafficking rings that smuggle Egyptian artifacts across America's borders.

Photo credit: Mohamed Aly

This post is researched, written, and published on the blog Cultural Heritage Lawyer Rick St. Hilaire at Text copyrighted 2010-2013 by Ricardo A. St. Hilaire, Attorney & Counselor at Law, PLLC. Any unauthorized reproduction or retransmission of this post is prohibited. CONTACT INFORMATION: