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Antiquities theft robbing Egyptians of the future

by Mohamed Ibrahim

The Washington Post

Egypt’s future lies in its history, particularly its archaeological history. For hundreds of years the mystery and wonders of the pyramids, the sphinx and the Valley of the Kings have attracted visitors from around the world.

Tourism is the lifeblood of Egypt’s economy and touches the lives of most Egyptians, whether they work as tour guides, restaurant owners, craftsmen or bus operators. Egypt’s history holds the prosperity of the country’s future generations, including that of youths — more than 40 million Egyptians are age 30 or younger — who are seeking opportunities. But thieves are raiding our archaeological sites and selling their findings to the highest bidders.

They are taking advantage of Egypt’s security situation to loot our nation’s economic future and steal from our children.

Egyptians need the people and the government of the United States to support our efforts to combat the systematic and organized looting of our museums and archaeological sites.

Imagine a world in which the stories of King Tut, Cleopatra, Ramesses and others were absent from the collective consciousness. And with much of our history still waiting to be discovered under the sand, the potential losses are staggering.

Antiquities theft is one of the world’s top crimes — after the trafficking of weapons, narcotics and people — but it is seldom addressed. Egyptian antiquities are flooding international markets. Recent auctions at Christie’s in London and New York included several items from Egypt.

Fortunately, when contacted, Christie’s in London withdrew a number of items that had been stolen from the tomb of King Amenhotep III, discovered in 2000 in Luxor. Among the items was a steatite bust of an official dating from 1793 to 1976 B.C.

Although arrests were made in this case, and two auction houses in Jerusalem canceled the sale of 126 antiquities after being contacted by Egyptian officials, the tide unfortunately flows in the other direction.

After being contacted by the Egyptian Foreign Ministry, other auction houses have been unwilling to cooperate with requests to delay or cancel sales of items that experts assess have been stolen. Among those who make their money selling antiquities, cooperation with the Egyptian government has been mixed at best.

Looting is a centuries-old business and a crime that Egyptians will no doubt be fighting for years, especially during difficult economic times. Our country is willing to take a strong stand.

No one can forget the stark images of Egyptians — men and women, Muslims and Christians, young and old — creating a human shield to protect the Egyptian Museum in Cairo during the 2011 revolution. Still, thieves succeeded in stealing several items from its collection.

Despite our government’s best efforts to retrieve those artifacts, more than 50 items, including some from the famous King Tut tomb, remain missing.

In the Aug. 14 attack on the Malawi National Museum, in Minya, more than 1,000 items were taken: statues more than 3,500 years old; jewelry from the time of the ancient Pharaohs; Greco-Roman gold coins. When security forces tried to stop them, the thieves burned some items they could not take, including mummies.

Every day, Egyptians risk their lives to prevent organized gangs from stealing our heritage. Our country is not the only place under attack: Iraq, Syria, Libya, Peru and Guatemala are suffering similar assaults on their heritage. Halting these crimes on our civilization will require a coordinated global effort — from both the “producers” and the “consumers.”

It is our common duty, in Egypt and around the world, to defend our shared heritage. International institutions, governments, business, archaeologists and other experts must come together to explore how to help countries in need protect their treasures.

The efforts of groups such as the International Coalition to Protect Egyptian Antiquities are appreciated — but much more aid is necessary. The youths of Egypt deserve more. There is no time to waste.

Mohamed Ibrahim is Egypt’s minister of state for antiquities and a professor of Egyptology at Ain Shams University, Cairo.

  • michaelrivero

    Israel routinely exploits archaeology for political purposes, to justify its “ownership” of the holy lands. It hypes its own antiquities (often frauds), while destroying artifacts from history viewed as a political threat. One of the great crimes committed against the people of Iraq was the looting of the Baghdad Museum and the destruction of many important ancient sites inside Iraq.

    And more to the point, I think that destruction of ancient sites is deliberate policy.

    Egypt is literally littered with the ruins of the ancient temples and palaces of her rulers. As much as has been
    found, it is estimated that only 1/3 of Egypt’s archeological wonders have been uncovered. A newly discovered temple was uncovered while digging a sewer line, and a cache of finely preserved mummies was literally stumbled over by a cow in a pasture.

    All of this wealth of archaeological treasures must of course annoy Israel. We are raised from birth with Old
    Testament tales of the greatness of the ancient Israelites, of the powerful kingdoms of Solomon and David and the first temple. Yet Israel, while rich in antiquities, is almost totally devoid of artifacts from this supposedly glorious time in her history. The existence of the fabled First Temple was supported with just two artifacts, a carved staff ornament in the shape of a pomegranate and the Jehoash tablet. Both of these artifacts have been exposed as frauds. We are told that once there was a magnificent temple on that hill, but it “all went away.” The wonders emerging from the soil of Egypt serve as a constant reminder that ancient buildings of such a scale as we are
    told the First Temple was simply do not vanish without a trace.

    There is considerable reason to suspect that the tales told in the Old Testament are just that; tales. The Bible
    is not science, it is the collected stories of a primitive tribal people telling each other how important they are. And like fishermen talking about the one that got away, or Ramses with his temple carvings of the did-not-really-happen victory over the Hittites at Kadesh, the writers of the ancient testaments assumed that the people they were telling stories to had no way to verify the claims for themselves. So “embellishment” was a low-risk activity.

    We do know from the available archaeological evidence that the Exodus probably actually happened to the Hyksos, not the Israelites. We know that the story of Moses is suspect because no Egyptian princess would hide a Hebrew child inside Pharaoh’s household, then give the kid a Hebrew name (“Moses” is actually an Egyptian title meaning “Prince” and is included in the names of many Pharaoh’s names such as Tut-Moses, Ah-Moses, Ra-Moses (Ramses) etc.) Likewise, the story of Masada may be less than accurate. The remains found on the mountain were buried with pig bones, something no proper Jewish funeral would tolerate, which suggests that the bodies found and venerated as heroes of ancient Judea were actually those of dead Romans.

    But a good story is a good story and the writers of the ancient texts were probably not thinking much further into the future than the guys who pen the “Celebrity dates space alien” stories you see at supermarket checkout lines. The fact that the celebrity is a real person does not prove the space alien exists. It’s just a story.

    Given enough time, even a simple story written in jest can take on a life of its own. Scientology began as a bet between two science fiction writers; look how wide spread that has become in just a short time.

    But, over time, entire religions with attendant wealth and power structures have been built on the premise that these ole testament stories really happened exactly as written. And today, here in the 21st century world, science has started to catch up with these ancient legends and call many of them into doubt.

    So, for a nation that justifies its existence on the writings of the Torah, the plethora of sites and artifacts confirming the ancient histories of Egypt must seem a dire political threat for a nation whose own ancient history seems to have left little if any traces at all.

    In that context, the strange behavior of the US military which posted guards around the Iraq oil ministry while leaving the Baghdad museum unguarded suddenly starts to make sense. So does the intentional targeting of Palestinian antiquities and the theft of their cultural treasures, if the supporters of a very insecure nation
    decide that leveling the archaeological playing field is preferable to allowing the obvious disparity in artifacts to remain visible to the world.

    In an attempt to attach ancient Israel to present day Jerusalem, Israeli authorities continue the attachment of spurious labels to Holy Basin landmarks, while claiming the falsification is due to the Byzantines, who got it all wrong.

    King David’s Tower’s earliest remains were constructed several hundred years after the Bible dates David’s reign. It is a now an obvious Islamic minaret.

    King David’s Citadel earliest remains are from the Hasmonean period (200 B.C.). The Citadel was entirely rebuilt by the Ottomans between 1537 and 1541.

    King David’s tomb, located in the Dormition Abbey, is a cloth-covered cenotaph (no remains) that honors King David. It’s only an unverified guess that the casket is related to David.

    The Pools of Solomon, located in a village near Bethlehem, are considered to be part of a Roman construction during the reign of Herod the Great. The pools supplied water to an aqueduct that carried the water to Bethlehem and to Jerusalem.

    The Stables of Solomon, under the Temple Mount, are assumed to be a construction of vaults that King Herod built in order to extend the Temple Mount platform.

    Absalom’s Tomb is an obvious Greek sculptured edifice and therefore cannot be the tomb of David’s son.

    The City of David contains artifacts that date before and during David’s time. However, some archaeologists maintain there is an insufficient number of artifacts to conclude any Israelite presence, including that of King David, before the late ninth century. In any case any Israelite presence must have been in a small and unfortified settlement.

    The Jerusalem Archaeological Park within the Old City, together with the Davidson Exhibition and Virtual Reconstruction Center also tell the story. Promising to reveal much of a Hebrew civilization, the museums shed little light on its subject. The Davidson Center highlights a coin exhibition, Jerusalem bowls and stone vessels. The Archeological Park in the Old City contains among many artifacts, Herodian structures, ritual baths, a floor of an Umayyad palace, a Roman road, Ottoman gates, and the façade of what is termed Robinson’s arch, an assumed Herodian entryway to the Temple Mount. The exhibitions don’t reveal many, if any, ancient Hebrew structures or institutions of special significance.

    Reliable archaeologists, after examining excavations that contain pottery shards and buildings, concluded that
    archaeological finds don’t substantiate the biblical history of Jerusalem and its importance during the eras of a united Jewish kingdom under David and Solomon.

    Margaret Steiner in an article titled It’s Not There: Archaeology Proves a Negative in the Biblical Archaeology Review, July/August, 1998, states:

    “…from the tenth century B.C.E. there is no archaeological evidence that many people actually lived in Jerusalem,
    only that it was some kind of public administrative center…We are left with nothing that indicates a city was here during their supposed reigns (of David and Solomon)…It seems unlikely, however, that this Jerusalem was the capital of a large state, the United monarchy, as described in Biblical texts.”

    • Christopher-trier

      Interesting how you go on a long anti-Israel rant about Egypt’s historical sites and the need to preserve its antiquities. Rabid anti-Semitism knows no bounds.

  • Jason Vega

    Hmm no news on the Bosnian Pyramid hmmm. Yes hmmm…. bigger than the pyramid at giza you say? Why would anyone want to know that???

    • Christopher-trier

      Or Cohokia…