Parliament is shortly expected to endorse a draft law outlining severer penalties for antiquities trafficking and copyright of Egypt's heritage, Nevine El-Aref reports
Protecting Egypt's cultural heritage from treasure hunters, retrieving looted and illegally-smuggled antiquities and generating the revenue necessary to restore and conserve this country's heritage are key priorities in a new antiquities law soon to be reviewed by the People's Assembly.
The new law, if passed, will also restrict photography of archaeological sites and artefacts and impose intellectual copyright controls on key Egyptian images such as the pyramids.
"The current law, 117/1983, is no longer suitable since the penalties it imposes for antiquity trafficking are not harsh enough. We need to stiffen penalties in order to stop further trafficking," Zahi Hawass, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), says.
Egypt first issued an antiquities law in 1835. This has been modified five times, most essentially in 1912 and 1983. The 193 law contains several loopholes, and the penalties did not prevent looting and urban encroachment on archaeological sites.
In the 19th and the early 20th centuries, treasured objects were shipped abroad in response to European interest. To mention just a few, the first collection in the Vienna Museum was granted by Khedive Abbas I and Said Pasha to the Austrian Prince Archidum Maximium, while the obelisk in the Place de la Concorde in Paris was given to the French King Louis Philippe by Mohamed Ali in return for the clock in the Citadel. The offering of Egyptian antiquities to foreign governments became a diplomatic trend.
Foreign excavation missions working in Egypt at that time acted as antiquities traders and sold vast numbers of Egyptian artefacts to their own national museums, creating great ancient Egyptian collections in the Louvre, the British Museum and the Berlin Museum, among others. Another opportunity for foreigners to obtain artefacts was through applying the division policy on newly-discovered antiquities. National and international laws at that time approved the trading of antiquities, and monthly auctions were held in one of the Egyptian Museum galleries.
After the completion of the Nubian temples salvage operation, the Egyptian government offered a large number of monuments to foreign countries as a gesture of thanks for their efforts. The Dabur Temple was given to the Spanish government and reconstructed in a gallery at the Madrid Museum, while in 1974 the small Dendereh Temple was handed to the American president Richard Nixon. The Egyptian government continued to offer items of its heritage or to sell them on the international market until the last modification of the law in 1983, which prohibited all such activities. All antiquities in Egypt became the property of the state and their unlawful removal from the country subsequent to that date is theft.
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