The UNESCO Mission to Egypt and Updates on Abusir, Saqqara, Dahshur and Lisht
On 15th March Dr Zahi Hawass had his address read out in absentia, during a UNESCO seminar held in Paris to celebrate 40 years of the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. In his address Hawass asked for assistance from the international community in ensuring that looted items failed to reach the illicit antiquities market: “In these dark days, when some of our most important sites are suffering from the depredations of looters and opportunists who are taking advantage of the current power vacuum, we call upon the international community for help.” He went on to say “The antiquities department has issued lists of antiquities known to be missing from the Egyptian Museum and from storage magazines that have been robbed; we call upon you to help us circulate these lists and watch out for these pieces should they appear on the black market. As we struggle to restore order to our sites, we call upon you for ideas and support, which we will welcome gladly.” Many organisations and institutions, including ECHO, had already raised awareness of this issue from the first unofficial reports that looting was taking place, and hopefully the hard work of these institutions along with watchful and honest individuals will prevent Egyptian antiquities being further damaged or falling into the hands of dishonest collectors. ECHO is currently compiling a report with many ideas about protecting Egypt’s cultural heritage to present to the Ministry of Antiquities.

The seminar was held to mark the first international recognition of the fact that cultural goods are not goods like any others. The event was intended to review the history, appraise the achievements, and examine the strong points and weaknesses of the 1970 UNESCO Convention, which is currently ratified by 120 states. However, the events taking place across the Arab world raised several more pressing matters. Gihane Zaki, who is the general director of the Nubian Fund and the Egyptian focal point of the World’s Heritage Convention (WHC) however, did attended the Paris seminar, and made a powerful declaration calling for urgent action to protect Egypt’s heritage, in the same manner to the action taken in the 1960s when the Aswan High Dam was built. The director of UNESCO Irina Bukova announced that a special UNESCO delegation was to visit Egypt in a couple of weeks to check the status of Egypt’s archaeological sites and monuments, especially those subject to looting attempts. Bukova said action would be taken to block the stolen objects from reaching the antiquities market, but she also raised concern for Egypt’s archaeological sites and museums and called on the Egyptian authorities to take concrete measures to protect these sites.

Before the arrival of this delegation some archaeologists were uneasy with the visit, which they considered as unexpected and in bad timing. Some, such as Prof. Abdel Halim Nour el-Din wondered why now and who invited them? He continued, the International Council of Museums (ICOM) is the governing body of all museums and we have already been in contact with them. It is not UNESCO’s responsibility and they have no need to check on the Egyptian Museum. Nour el-Din added that if it is the case that the UNESCO delegation is coming to help Egypt recuperate looted artefacts their help is more than welcome. Hawass has made clear on several occasions that he has rejected offers from UNESCO and other international organisations to help protect Egypt’s cultural heritage, calling the interference of any foreign country in the protection of Egypt’s heritage ‘antiquities colonisation’. Hawass’ critics say that he is covering up his and other officials’ corruption and does not want UNESCO or any other international organisation to discover this by delving too deep into the management of archaeological sites or security at museums and magazines. Dr Mohamed Abdel Maksoud welcomed the UNESCO visit. Dr Maksoud pointed out that Egypt was among the founding countries of UNESCO and also a member in the World Heritage Organisation (WHO), which is a part of UNESCO. He continued that the UNESCO delegation was, indeed, coming to help Egypt to resituate its looted artefacts in the aftermath of the revolution by publishing a list of the missing objects in case any appear in the illicit antiquities market.

The visit of the UNESCO delegation does not undermine Egypt’s role as custodians or raise doubt of its capacity to protect its monuments. Egypt and UNESCO have a long history of working together for the good of Egypt’s world heritage. During the 1960s UNESCO was instrumental in organising the international Nubian Rescue Project due to the building of Aswan High Dam. Among the more recent problems UNESCO helped with was the ill-planned Cairo Ring Road, which was meant to cross over the Giza Plateau. This would have encroached on the famous area of the pyramids. The Ring Road was built around most of Cairo but with UNESCO’s help the section going right across the plateau was abandoned and the Ring Road does not join up, thus making it more of a Horseshoe Road. UNESCO also helped Egypt build the extraordinary Nubian Museum in Aswan, whose director Ossama Abdel Meguid is also a member of ICOM. In the early days of the revolution he received a letter with the names and numbers of 1,000 residents volunteering to protect the museum, fortunately, the museum never required their assistance. Lately, UNESCO has been involved in the building of the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization (NMEC) in Fustat, still currently under construction. UNESCO and Gihane Zaki are considering devoting a section of the new museum to the recent Egyptian revolution. This section could be used as a platform on democratisation and a forum for discussion that would include the powerful new media.

On the 22nd March a team of experts, from both UNESCO and ICOM landed in Egypt for a three-day tour of archaeological sites subject to looting during and since Egypt’s 25th January Revolution. This mission led by Christian Manhart, chief of the Museums and Cultural Objects Section within UNESCO, visited the Egyptian Museum and the NMEC as well as the Memphis necropolis: the Giza plateau, Saqqara, Abusir and Dahshur archaeological sites. The mission came to offer their support and determine what the country needs in order to protect their heritage sites and artefacts, many of which have been looted in recent weeks. The delegation was met by Dr Zahi Hawass and immediately set about discussing the recent status of Egypt’s antiquities and the amount of break-ins and loss, as well as the means to resituate such objects in cases where they have been smuggled out of the country.

The first place that the delegation visited was the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities, Cairo. Following three hours of touring the museum’s galleries and laboratories, the delegation's members expressed their satisfaction with what they had seen. Manhart went on to say that the UNESCO visit was wrongly reflected in the media, for they had not come to Egypt on an inspection tour, as was written, but to ‘extend a helping hand to Egyptians to resituate their missing heritage’. The delegation’s aim was not to evaluate or inspect the damage at Egypt’s museums and archaeological sites in the wake of the revolution, but to assure the Egyptian authorities of UNESCO’s support in terms of protecting the country’s historical and cultural heritage, and also to meet the new people in charge and establish contact with them. UNESCO offered technical support, and to send security specialists, conduct a needs assessment, and define priorities for the protection of Egyptian cultural heritage. If funding is required due to the retreat of tourism, continued Manhart, in order to provide more security facilities, UNESCO could help find financial resources.

France Desmarais, director of programmes for the ICOM and responsible for the fight against illegal trafficking of cultural goods, was also among the UNESCO delegates. Desmarais said that ICOM with the Ministry of Antiquities will establish a Red List to classify stolen Egyptian artefacts, which would be sent to Interpol to distribute to police stations worldwide, to the International Customs Organization, to the US Department of State, to art dealers and to professionals from the ICOM network. She went on to explain that the list classifies the stolen objects according to their type, so that non-specialists, mostly custom officers and policemen, can easily identify a stolen item. Desmarais continued to say that “Egyptian artefacts are the most coveted in the world,” underlining that art trafficking is the third most profitable after drug and arms trafficking, garnering US$6 billion annually. According to Desmarais, the value of an artefact looted on an archaeological site can increase 1,000 times before it is sold. That is to say that if the thief that steals the artefact gets £100 for it, then the eventual antiquities collector will pay the illicit art dealer £100,000, making the whole business a mugs game. It is easy to establish the list of the stolen or missing artefacts from museums or magazines, but much more tedious and complicated to trace the non-listed objects looted from archaeological sites, Desmarais explained. Establishing a list of these items that have not been classified, listed or photographed is extremely difficult. According to Desmarais, these items constitute 90 percent of the illegal objects circulating on the illicit art market. It must not be forgotten that the cause of looting and worldwide plundering of antiquities is to acquire ‘treasures’ to be sold to customers: no customers, no looting or plundering. Although there may be many middle-men all taking their cut in this process the initial looting is usually conducted by local thieves. The antiquity dealers who arrange for the objects to be smuggled abroad, and in turn sell their haul to museums and private collectors worldwide are just as guilty as the local thieves (who they ultimately employ) of destroying archaeological sites and stealing cultural heritage.

Mastabat el-Fara’un of King Shepseskaf at South Saqqara

Pyramid of Pepy I at South Saqqara

On the second day of the visit the delegation visited the Memphite Pyramid Fields, one of the original five Egyptian sites inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. The mission, accompanied by Dr Hawass visited Abusir, Saqqara and Dahshur, finding not only that the sites had been looted and damaged, but illegal constructions had been erected on some of the sites. At South Saqqara a villainous group of local villagers have forcefully moved onto 15 acres next to the Mastabat el-Fara’un and the pyramids of Merenre I, Pepy I and Pepy II; an area containing archaeological remains dating to the Old Kingdom and later. Some of the local villagers built a cemetery with about 500 tombs, about 4.0 m high and 6.0 long by 5.0 m wide, intending to make money out of selling them to the bereaved relatives. The construction of a mosque has been started right on top of the causeway to the pyramid of Djedkare-Isesi, which leads into a neighbouring village. These are common ploys used by local villagers to grab land and increase the amount of money they can make. The building of a single or double row of bricks in the outline of a building on antiquities land has been going on for many years and has been observed first hand by many of ECHO’s Trustees. This policy of greed is not new and has been occurring across the country for many decades, but it is now time that the Ministry of Antiquities acted.

The lack of tourists at Giza has pushed the already troublesome camel and horse drivers over the edge and they are running amok all over the site; they are even attacking tombs. In Abusir, an area that contains tombs from the First and Second Dynasty, some criminal elements from the local village have taken over a 10 acre area of the site and built modern tombs above the ancient tombs. More than 200 illegal excavation pits have been dug on the site, some up to 5.0 meters deep and some actually finding previously undiscovered tombs, which are now completely empty. The Czech team will be conducting rescue excavations in these areas that have been attacked, diverting both finances and manpower from the teams research strategy. Prof. Miroslav Verner said that most of objects in the expedition store are irretrievably damaged, including Old Kingdom objects from King Raneferef‘s tomb and the vase of King Huni. In Dahshur, antiquities inspectors are struggling to prevent criminals from illicitly excavating at night, some breaking into the large tombs at the site. At the Middle Kingdom site of Lisht, looters have repeatedly broken into several tombs, and there are illegal excavations taking place nightly. In one of the local villages a statue measuring 1.5m high was found, and in another village inscribed blocks have been found. These antiquities may belong to the long searched for Middle Kingdom capital city iti-tawi founded by Amenemhet I.

All these illegal encroachments and looting of archaeological sites were either seen first-hand by the UNSECO representatives or were informed about them by Dr Hawass. The UNESCO delegation was so appalled by the encroachment on Egypt’s archaeological sites that they asked for the immediate removal of these modern constructions in compliance with the rules regarding WHL sites. The building of structures on archaeological sites breaks both international and national legislation, and this wilful and wanton destruction of ancient monuments and archaeological sites is being done for no other reason than pure greed. Dr Zahi Hawass appealed to Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, head of the Supreme Council of the Army to stop all encroachment on Egypt’s archaeological sites, which reached over 500 encroachments during the past two months. Top officials at the Ministry of State for Antiquities sent a similar petition to Prime Minister Essam Sharaf to remove the encroachment and stop any further encroachment on the archaeological sites. It is uncertain if Dr Hawass wants only the encroachments of the past few months removed or is going to start a programme of removing all illegal buildings on archaeological land.