Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Can Egypt Protect Its Ancient Monuments?

Newsweek (Kent R. Weeks)

The postrevolution elation has masked a disturbing uptick in archeological plunder.

The euphoria with which Egyptians greeted the ouster of Hosni Mubarak in February was quickly tempered by the news—at first denied by officials, but later confirmed—that thieves had stolen several priceless objects from the Egyptian Museum, including pieces from the tomb of the pharaoh Tutankhamun, among them a gilded wooden statuette of the king and a silver trumpet. Over the next few days, there were more alarming reports: police throughout Egypt had abandoned their posts, leaving hundreds of archeological sites unguarded. A few weeks later, Zahi Hawass, the director of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, resigned. Though he later resumed his post as minister of archeological affairs, the SCA was left rudderless and confused in his absence. Gangs of armed treasure hunters took advantage of the chaos and began plundering ancient tombs and antiquities storerooms throughout Egypt. The robberies are ongoing and thought to exceed 400 incidents so far.

Antiquities theft is as old as the pyramids, but never before has it so shocked Egyptians. The Egyptian press voiced the public’s revulsion at the desecration, and hundreds of youthful protestors and ordinary citizens in Cairo and Luxor volunteered to stand guard at museums and archeological sites. It was a noble gesture but a futile one. There are simply too many sites to protect in such an ad hoc way.

In truth, no one knows how many archeological sites are in Egypt: 5,000 is an oft-quoted figure, but other experts say there are many more. Some sites are tiny—graffiti scratched on a cliff face, or a small cemetery. Others, like Giza, cover several square kilometers filled with thousands of tombs and pyramids.

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