Egyptians no longer to tolerate 'cultural desecration'
By Betsy Hiel
Published: Sunday, June 16, 2013, 10:50 p.m.
DAHSHOUR, Egypt — Tour guide Ahmed Shihab cried when he saw how thieves ravaged an ancient burial site here that includes a pyramid dating back nearly 4,000 years.
“This is our history and heritage, and they are selling it at a cheap, cheap price,” he said.
Egypt's antiquities have been looted on an unprecedented scale since the 2011 revolution. At three sites the Tribune-Review examined, so many deep holes are dug into ancient tombs that the landscapes resemble Swiss cheese.
Human bones, mummified body parts, broken limestone sarcophagi and wooden coffins litter the sites.
Officials blame criminal gangs that arose amid the instability of the past two years. Impoverished villagers also take advantage of nationwide lawlessness to steal and sell artifacts.
Artist Youssef Abagui, who lives in Dahshour, calls it “a travesty of epic proportions … a cultural desecration.”
Archaeologists and Egyptologists agree.
Fekri Hassan, cultural heritage director at Egypt's French University, said the damage to many heritage sites “seems to threaten any possibility of recovery.”
Officials have begun to react; soldiers and more police were placed here several months after a Trib report in February documented the looting.
“Every night, the army is guarding the pyramids. … No one dares to go there,” said Ahmed Ezzat, a local resident who has campaigned against looting.
“It is much better now,” said Wahiba Saleh, Dahshour's chief antiquities inspector, and “a symbol of what can happen.”
‘Fragmented image' of history
Many Egyptians don't understand the value of their heritage, Saleh said, because “they don't consider ancient Egyptians their grandfathers. They consider them pagans and infidels.”
She and others accuse some Islamic leaders of promoting that view. She recounted overhearing a sheikh urge followers to “break the pagan idols.”
On an ultra-Islamist Salafi television channel, another sheikh told those who dig for “treasures'' to begin by reading passages from the Quran to guard against “the jinn,” or spirits: “Whoever is digging, say ‘In the name of Allah' with every hit of the axe, so that the jinn would go away,” he declared.
A gold figurine “shouldn't be sold as a statue, it should be cut and sold, even if that decreases the price,” he counseled, and a stone statue “cannot be sold or traded. It is forbidden, and it should be destroyed.”
Officials — before and after 2011 — seem to have missed the potential of sites such as Dahshour for adjacent villages, despite tourism's profitability until the political upheaval of recent years.
No road signs point to Dahshour, for example, even though it has three of the world's earliest pyramids.
Schoolteacher Abdel Kareem El-Semainy said villagers “didn't see any change in their lives” from tourism fees collected at the site. He wants them to be encouraged to offer tourist services — cafes, gift shops, or camel and horse rides “like at the Giza pyramids.”
Many villagers near such sites think the benefits go only “to the state or to the foreigners,” said Monica Hanna, an Egyptian archaeologist.
Those villagers believe foreign archaeologists “take the pieces they find and sell them abroad to museums,” said Hanna, a leader of efforts to save historic sites. “So they feel that if the foreigners can do this, why can't they do the same?”
She faults schools for teaching little of the country's heritage; social-studies textbooks are “a public menace” that give students “a very fragmented image” of Egypt's history, she said.
Hassan agrees that educators failed and that local residents are “pushed away from the archaeological sites.”
Hassan is working on a United Nations-sponsored program that trains Dahshour residents as guides or as artisans for the tourist trade, offers micro-loans for small shops and provides marketing and other technical advice. It has trained about 40 “heritage guardians.”
He hopes similar efforts are undertaken across the country.
Others want to take advantage of growing worldwide interest in eco-tourism.
Dahshour's site includes a seasonal lake that was a favored hunting ground of Egypt's last king and now is a military shooting club. A recent United Nations report called for protecting the lake from nearby construction and quarrying. It suggested opening an eco-lodge on its shores.
“It is rare to see an ancient cultural artifact in its natural habitat — the Dahshour pyramids in their natural wetlands,” said Noor Nour, executive director of Nature Conservation Egypt.
Other sites could be similarly developed, preservationists say.
The badly looted necropolis of Abu Sir al Malaq — detailed in Sunday's Tribune-Review — would be ideal for a museum, according to archaeologist Hanna.
She said such a project would lead to work for nearby villagers and attract tourists.
Besides, “the site has been the responsibility of the ministry of antiquities for years,” she said, “and they have done nothing with it.”
Betsy Hiel is the Tribune-Review's foreign correspondent. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org .
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