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Egyptologist risks life, career to expose looting

| Saturday, June 15, 2013, 9:13 p.m.
Shawn Baldwin | For the Tribune-Review
Dr. Monica Hanna, an Egyptian archaeologist, surveys the burial grounds in Abu Sir al Malaq. 'You see dogs playing with human bones, children scavenging for pottery and painted sarcophagi. You also find very well mummified fragments. It is very macabre,' Hanna says. Hanna is a leader in exposing the looting of Egyptian antiquities.

ABU SIR AL MALAQ, Egypt — Monica Hanna's reputation as an archaeologist has grown far beyond her native Egypt — but not without risk.

As she and several journalists documented looting at an ancient burial site here, several men – one with a shotgun slung over a shoulder — threatened her.

“I heard one man say, ‘Beat her and take her camera,' ” Hanna said afterward.

When the men phoned for police, she hid her camera's memory card in her shirt. After 45 minutes of argument, she was allowed to leave.

“The locals, who are a part of the looting, don't want the photos out there because then their business stops,” she explained.

Hanna, 30, is a leader in exposing the antiquity-looting that has exploded since Egypt's 2011 revolution. She appears on Egyptian television debating government officials, takes reporters to looted sites, and encourages Egyptians to protect their heritage.

To Nigel Hetherington, an archaeologist and co-founder of Past Preservers, which connects academia and media on archaeological issues, she is “amazing … a revolutionary in the true sense of the word.”

“She is out to get the bad guys and harness the feeling the Egyptians have of their own heritage, and turn it into actual force for good,” he said.

When she was 14, Hanna took a school trip to the Egyptian Museum, which holds some of the country's best antiquities, including the King Tut collection.

“I sneaked inside the mummification lab” and saw its director at work, she recalled. “I was fascinated, and I asked him if I could come and help.”

She volunteered twice weekly after school; a year later, she helped with mummy restorations. “I helped repair the toes of Thutmose III,” a pharaoh who ruled Egypt nearly 3,500 years ago.

She graduated from American University in Cairo with a bachelor's degree in Egyptology and archaeological chemistry, then earned a master's degree in teaching English, followed by a doctoral degree in archaeological sciences from the University of Pisa, Italy. She is doing post-doctoral studies at Humbolt University, Berlin.

Not everyone appreciates her work; she often receives threatening phone calls: “People say that I am foreign-paid, that I have a foreign agenda, or that I am doing this for personal glory.”

A policeman told her uncle that she should stop because “she is bothering really big people.”

Salima Ikram, Hanna's former teacher and head of American University's Egyptology unit, is not surprised by the threats: “That means she is doing her job well. She is scaring some of the syndicate people who live around and feed off of the antiquities.”

Hanna concedes she may be risking her career: “I might not get future permits to work on archaeological sites from the antiquities ministry. But, then, it's ethics versus career — if I cannot talk about this, then I really have no place to teach my students one day that we have done our best to protect our heritage.”

She is working with three groups to monitor archaeological sites; a website will allow people, including tourists, to anonymously report damaged antiquities.

Her commitment arose, she said, because foreign archaeologists were afraid of losing work permits if they spoke up and antiquities inspectors who reported looting were usually ignored.

“If we Egyptians don't protect our heritage, who will?” she asks.

Hetherington said Hanna “brings a model of archaeological heritage-management that is severely lacking here … (she) can empower the younger generation to take control of this mess.”

Her work “is a service not just to Egypt … because Egypt's heritage is part of the world heritage,” adds Ikram, her former teacher.

Betsy Hiel is the Tribune-Review's foreign correspondent. Email her at bhiel@tribweb.com.

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