Monday, April 14, 2014

True Grit: Monica Hanna Defends Heritage in Egypt, Receives SAFE's Prize

(C) SAFE. Used with permission.
Khaemwaset was a royal prince who lived during the 13th century B.C. He became the first Egyptologist and was greatly revered in his time for conserving Egypt's monuments.

Now a 21st century Egyptologist has been honored for preserving the past. She is archaeologist Dr. Monica Hanna, who actively searches the desert sands and the Nile banks to defend Egypt's rich heritage against looters and vandals.

Saving Antiquities for Everyone (SAFE) presented the Beacon Award to Dr. Hanna Thursday night, calling her "an outstanding archaeologist and social media advocate whose work has raised public awareness about the illicit antiquities trade and the fight to protect cultural heritage." SAFE's distinguished prize has been presented since 2006 to recognize individuals who bring attention to the global crime of heritage trafficking.

Dr. Hanna has replaced Khaemwaset's chariot, papyrus roll, and royal title with a car, a Twitter account, and true grit. She uses modern-day tools along with old-fashioned courage to travel to heritage sites under attack and tweet for help. Dr. Hanna now has close to 30,000 followers on Twitter's social networking site. The internet-savvy archaeologist also the founded the online community known as Egypt’s Heritage Task Force

Prior to receiving the Beacon Award, Dr. Hanna addressed an auditorium of engaged listeners about "Saving Ancient Egypt, One Tweet at a Time." She passionately described the destruction affecting Egypt's heritage since the Arab Spring, and her photographs of armed looters and dynamited sites belied the fact that her daily work remains fraught with danger as she confront criminals, government officials, and civil unrest. She has even been shot at.

Dr. Hanna's determination has paid off, nevertheless. With modesty and enthusiasm, the Egyptologist explained how she rallied her countrymen to clear trash from an archaeological site, inspired local protests against unplanned urban expansion, and gathered help to clean up the mess left behind by thieves and vandals who stole practically everything from the Malawi museum and burning and destroying whatever they could not haul off.

Those in attendance at last week's ceremony in New York learned about three significant perils to cultural heritage in Egypt as Dr. Hanna recited many incidents of looting, land grabbing, and smuggling that have occurred since 2011.

Dr. Monica Hanna's slide showing a large looter's pit
near the Black Pyramid at Dashur, Egypt.
Explaining that there is "looting with machine guns," the archaeologist described plundering that has taken place at Abusir, Dashur, Memphis, and several other historic locations throughout the country.

Dr. Hanna chronicled artifact thefts near the Black Pyramid, facilitated by diggers who greatly expanded the number of illegal looter's pits during the first 30 days after the revolution.

The area of Dashur--a royal necropolis that is home to the Black Pyramid, the Red Pyramid, the Bent Pyramid, and many other important monuments--witnessed an astounding 300% increase in thieves' holes. Dr. Hanna presented satellite images of the pockmarked landscape, which has swelled across the archaeologically rich desert in recent years.

The Egyptologist lamented about the destruction caused by bulldozers that "rummage like cats in a trash bin," irretrievably shredding archaeological material. Blasting too has wiped out evidence of the past, documented by photographs depicting the devastating aftermath caused by freshly exploded dynamite.

Dr. Hanna pointed out the differences between the "organized mafia" and the local villagers who steal antiquities. Organized criminals use four wheel drive vehicles, bulldozers, and weapons smuggled from Libya. They hire locals to dig and give them lunch boxes. More importantly, they often target specific objects of interest like those from the Amarna period, the New Kingdom, and the Old Kingdom. The looting demonstrates that "they have archaeological knowledge," Dr. Hanna warily observed. Local villagers and families, by contrast, use simple rope and shovels.

Decrying unplanned urban expansion, Dr. Hanna described this growing harm with slides depicting a new parking lot built over an old temple site and a soccer field pitched atop an ancient 26th Dynasty burial. Land grabbers and the "land mafia," meanwhile, have wrested control of heritage locations by "hacking out" traces of archaeology and by building modern cemeteries to claim dominion, she said.

Dr. Hanna spoke about "clear channels for smuggling" that menace the country as Egypt continues to be stripped of artifacts that are illegally sold abroad. Antiquities trafficked from the Sinai Peninsula to Gaza eventually fly from Israel to European markets, the Egyptologist disclosed. Artifacts also find their way from the Gulf of Suez seaport of Ein El Sokhna to Dubai, Doha, and other destinations.

Amid the descriptions of endangered cultural heritage, Dr. Hanna expressed concern for the welfare and education of the children of Egypt. Illegal digging, for example, has caused deaths. At Abusir el-Malaq, a site where thieves have created heaps of human bones and fragmented mummies, Dr. Hanna gave an account of how approximately 20 children were killed while unearthing artifacts.

She highlighted that Egypt's children would not have a vested interest in protecting local culture if they failed to embrace the heritage as their own. One teenage boy, whom Dr. Hanna spotted running away from the ransacked Malawi museum, told her it was okay to attack the artifacts because the museum belonged to the government. She implored that a "mistake we need to address is that belief that heritage belongs to the government and not to the people." Dr. Hanna expressed appreciation to the other young people who arrived to help save what was left of the Malawi museum's collection.

Dr. Hanna concluded her remarks to the SAFE audience by offering several suggestions about how Americans could help. She encouraged support for academics who publish scholarly articles documenting archaeological site looting. She emphasized that the illegal sale of artifacts must be reported to authorities. She also expressed strong support for the adoption of import barriers to block pillaged and smuggled Egyptian artifacts from entering the United States.

There will be more heritage to protect as the resilient Dr. Hanna returns home to Egypt. To track her ongoing preservation efforts and to learn more about cultural heritage under threat, readers can follow the modern-day Khaemwaset's Twitter feed here.

By Rick St. Hilaire Text copyrighted 2010-2014 by Ricardo A. St. Hilaire, Attorney & Counselor at Law, PLLC. Blog url: Any unauthorized reproduction or retransmission of this post is prohibited. CONTACT INFORMATION: