Egypt's ancient treasures being lost to looters
DAHSHOUR, Egypt — From a distance, it looks as though an animal has burrowed around the 4,000-year-old Black Pyramid of Amenemhat III.
But thieves dug these holes. And Egyptian archaeologist Monica Hanna calls that “a catastrophe.”
“See the ancient mud bricks?” says Hanna, 29, peering into a pit. “It is very well structured.”
She walks to another, followed by three pyramid custodians, and points into the 25-foot hole with a tunnel to one side. Here, she says, looters exposed what might be a burial shaft.
One custodian, Said Hussein, 32, tells her that as many as 30 armed men come nightly to dig for antiquities. They beat two custodians, broke an arm of one and “attacked the armed guards on the gate.”
“Do they find anything?” she asks.
“They only find pottery, stuff like that,” he replies. “A wooden coffin, that's what they take.”
These “massive looting pits,” Hanna says, have made “Swiss cheese” of a 2-mile-long field of five pyramids listed as a United Nations World Heritage Site.
“This should not happen here,” she declares. “I feel so sad … because it is history being lost forever.”
The necropolis of Dahshour, dating back 4,500 years, is threatened by looters and by villagers expanding a cemetery nearly to the base of one of the world's first pyramids.
Experts say the largely unexplored complex shows the evolution of pyramid-building.
Pharaoh Snefru experimented here first, raising what is called the Bent Pyramid because of its odd shape. His smooth-sided Red Pyramid is named for the color of its limestone.
Snefru was the father of Khufu, or Cheops, who built the Great Pyramid, one of the ancient world's celebrated Seven Wonders, in nearby Giza.
The brazen looting and the encroaching cemetery reflect Egypt's lawlessness and political unrest since its 2011 revolution.
Police, who abandoned their posts during the revolution, remain disorganized; locals say the officers feel blamed for everything that goes wrong, so they simply ignore armed looters.
And critics accuse Egypt's new Islamist government of caring little about antiquities. Some radical Islamists say the pyramids are pagan shrines that should be destroyed.
Six miles away in Sakkara, Osama El Shimi sits in an office writing a report about the problem. An antiquities ministry official who oversees the Giza, Sakkara and Dahshour pyramids, he calls Dahshour a “virgin area” that must be protected from “sneak digging.”
“Today, there's an obsession that some people have with the antiquities. They want the treasure and are looking for it,” he says, hands spread in exasperation. “Everyone is dreaming of becoming a billionaire one day.”
He insists steps have been taken to halt the cemetery's spread. Now he wants “a scientific excavation” to determine what treasure is buried here and how to salvage it.
He understands the villagers' desire to bury relatives near their original cemetery. “But would that mean they're allowed to go bury their dead in the pyramid?” he asks sarcastically.
Seeing thieves get rich
Until 1996, Dahshour lay within a closed military zone. Climbing the 125 steep stone steps to the Red Pyramid's entrance, you can watch an Egyptian soldier maneuvering a U.S.-made M1 Abrams tank across the next-door army base.
In the 1950s, the area was a favored hunting ground of Egypt's last king, Farouk.
Today it remains a scene from pharaonic times: A young boy rides a donkey loaded with greens on a dusty road; water buffalo graze along a lake where waterfowl nest; date palm, mango, guava and pear trees shade fields of wheat, barley, corn and vegetables fed by a Nile River canal.
With Cairo about 90 minutes away, villagers feel untouched by revolution — or the government.
More than a month ago, in the absence of police, they began extending their cemetery's white-brick walls to within yards of an ancient causeway that linked the Bent Pyramid to two temples.
“We filed for permits many times — for four years we filed — but the ministry of antiquities refused,” says Mohamed Sayed, a man with the rough hands of a farmer and a toe-length olive-green gown.
“Now we are building. … There is no other place to build a cemetery.”
“Where else are people going to be buried? These are our grandfather's tombs,” says a smiling Fatiha Guna, surrounded by a dozen grandchildren. Dressed in a topaz headscarf and a dark navy gown, she cheerfully describes herself as “a poor farmer.”
The looting is an open secret among villagers. But it alarms local historian Mohamed Amin, 47, and his cousin, high school English teacher Abdel Kareem El-Semainy.
El-Semainy says the cemetery is free, so it attracts poor villagers from surrounding towns. “If you want to build another cemetery, you have to buy the land,” he explains.
Amin says, “Some people build in the cemetery not for a tomb, but to excavate for antiquities.”
He describes the looters as poor, uneducated; some believe “the ancient Egyptians are infidels,” he says, so they often destroy mummies or coffins.
The cousins asked local imams to condemn the thefts. Yet when poor villagers “see someone becoming rich from stealing antiquities,” says El-Semainy, “they want to imitate them.”
‘Like a jungle at night'
In the cemetery's newly expanded portion, one man proudly displays his family tombstone.
The land, Hanna says, “was never surveyed or properly excavated.”
She concedes today's residents have as much right as ancient pharaohs to be buried here, and moving the cemetery would be “very difficult.” Still, it is much “bigger than the population of the villages here. It is like a cemetery for a massacre.”
With the looting, she says, “We are going to lose all the archaeological evidence, (and) it will be gone for good.”
Walking toward the pockmarked earth around the collapsed Black Pyramid, she points to the many tire tracks of thieves' motorcycles.
Nearby villagers began digging near the Black Pyramid just days after 2011's revolution, guards say, and the army and the police refused to intervene.
Hussein, the custodian, is sympathetic to the police: The looters “come here in big groups with machine guns — and the policeman, he only has nine bullets. What can he do?”
“It's like a jungle here at night,” says co-worker Walid Ali.
In one looter-exposed burial shaft, Hanna points to an ancient staircase: “See those holes in the walls? This is how the ancient Egyptians managed to go up and down.”
Another contains what she says “looks like a labyrinth.”
She guesses looters need 10 nights to clear out a tomb shaft: “They are not doing it scientifically, stratum by stratum.”
They likely “find many things — probably little vases, statues. It is worth quite a lot of money.” Mummies, too, she adds with a worried sigh.
‘Killing our civilization'
According to antiquities official El Shimi, coffins and other artifacts found close to the surface are probably from Egypt's Greco-Roman period. “As you go deeper, you will find middle kingdom or old kingdom” objects, he says.
He and Hanna agree about the value of what is being lost, but they see different causes.
She complains that no one is in charge, taking strong measures to stop the looting.
“Every single piece they take out and sell on the antiquities market loses 70 percent of its history,” she explains. “It turns from a historic object into just a mere artifact.
“We are losing Egyptian history here, the history for the whole world.”
El Shimi blames geography — a broad desert area is difficult to secure.
“We're trying to arm our guards and increase the number of guards and make an agreement with the police, trying to work together.” And the looting is “actually decreasing, step by step.”
He also blames the impact of political change in Cairo.
A 10-year plan exists to protect pyramids, he says, but revolutionary turmoil has reduced tourism to a trickle. “You know, the antiquities ministry, we finance ourselves. If there is no tourism, there's no money, so there's no work.”
He looks at the report on his desk. “Unfortunately, after a revolution anywhere in the world, there is something like this. This kills me; this kills all the honest people in Egypt.”
The looters, he says sadly, “are killing our civilization.”
Betsy Hiel is the Tribune-Review's foreign correspondent. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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