Unchecked looting guts Egypt's heritage, with one ancient site '70 percent gone'
ABU SIR AL MALAQ, Egypt — A wispy-haired mummy's head, bleached skulls, and arm and leg bones are piled outside looted tombs.
A mummified hand with leathery-skinned fingers pokes from the sand.
Ancient burial wrappings from mummified bodies — torn apart to find priceless jewelry — unravel across the desert like brown ribbon, or tangle near broken bits of wooden coffins still brightly painted after nearly 3,000 years underground.
With bones scattered everywhere, this 500-acre plot looks like the aftermath of a massacre rather than an ancient burial ground.
“You see dogs playing with human bones, children scavenging for pottery,” says Egyptian archaeologist Monica Hanna, stepping cautiously around grisly remains and deep pits dug into tombs by looters.
Salima Ikram, an expert in tombs and mummification who heads the Egyptology unit at American University in Cairo, gasps in horror in her home while examining Tribune-Review photographs of the site.
“These scattered remains … brutally pulled apart in search of one shiny piece of metal,” Ikram says in disgust.
“This is most horrific — someone's ribs!” she suddenly exclaims. “Oh, God! It's like the killing fields!”
Thieves, explorers and archaeologists have raided Egypt's ancient sites for centuries. The Tribune-Review first reported in February that the looting had become a free-for-all after a 2011 revolution toppled one government and introduced continuing turmoil.
The tomb raiding threatens some of Egypt's — and the world's — most revered and valuable heritage sites, many of which have never been properly studied or catalogued, experts say. A few experts privately accuse the Muslim Brotherhood-led government of President Mohamed Morsy of ignoring the threat.
Some Islamist religious leaders have contributed to the frenzy by ordering “pagan” antiquities to be destroyed, or issuing directives on the “correct” Islamic way to loot them.
Police and local authorities insist they are overwhelmed by lawlessness and outgunned by criminal gangs with heavy weapons smuggled from Libya.
Meanwhile, the threatened heritage is a low priority for many Egyptians beset by daily electrical outages, fuel shortages, higher food prices, rising street crime and political instability.
For others, that heritage is a chance to cash in. Looted objects are sold in dirt-poor villages near sites such as Abu Sir al Malaq; others go to wealthy collectors, particularly in the United States, Europe, Japan and the Middle East, experts say.
Last week, Egypt's new antiquities minister pledged to improve security “at all archaeological sites and museums.”
But that appears to be too little too late for the sprawling cemetery complex, or necropolis, in the governorate of Bani Suef. Of three sites examined by the Trib – the others are Dahshour and El-Hibeh – it is the most extensively ravaged.
Pieces of history
Abu Sir al Malaq is about 70 miles from Cairo, in the midst of green farm fields, palm and banana groves, all fed by a tributary of the Nile.
Once named in honor of the Pharaonic god Osiris, it is thought to have been a burial ground from 3250 BC until AD 700.
Archaeologists excavated it in the early 20th century, and its artifacts are found in museums around the world, according to Nadia Ashour, who oversees antiquities in Bani Suef. She calls it “one of the most important antiquity areas” in the governate.
It also is one of the most looted.
Hanna, the Egyptian archaeologist, has surveyed the site repeatedly.
“The looting is pandemic, every night and even in the morning,” she says.
Nearby villagers, asked for directions to the site, respond: “Antiquities? Do you want to buy antiquities?”
Ikram, the university Egyptologist, says Trib photos from the site indicate “intact tombs (were) completely robbed, bodies ripped apart. It is a disgrace.”
Some photos show ancient dog bones in front of looted tombs — the remains of animals buried in honor of Anubis, a Pharaonic, jackal-headed god worshipped as a protector of the dead.
“Here's a piece of a coffin and the person it belongs to,” Ikram says, studying the photos. “For almost 3,000 years, they have been left undisturbed. They were not meant to be left like this, to be eaten by dogs and foxes and jackals … broken apart by greedy people.”
Hanna, picking her way across the site, points out chunks of painted or inscribed limestone tomb walls. Looters often “break off the pieces that have the engraving on it, to sell,” she says.
Some of the discarded linen mummy wrappings are mixed with papyrus, gypsum and mortar, then elaborately painted — “a trait of wealthier mummies,” she explains.
Sighing, she adds: “I think 70 percent of the site is gone.”
‘Cried the whole way home'
Bani Suef's antiquities director, Ashour, says she is “heartbroken” that “sneak digging” is destroying such sites throughout Egypt.
Although Islam and Christianity forbid grave-robbing, she says, some Egyptians think their ancestors were pagans and, thus, are fair game to be robbed.
She blames heavily armed criminal gangs that sprang up after the revolution. Police, she insists, now conduct more investigations, more spot-checks of sites; nine looted coffins were retrieved in recent months and 15 looters imprisoned.
Ashour said she “cannot say for sure that antiquities have been taken out” because some villagers craft expert forgeries of artifacts. But she insists Abu Sir al Malaq “is like 80 percent stable,” although “from time to time, these attacks take place.”
“The first time I saw this, I cried the whole way home,” she says. “I have been coming here for six weeks now and, each time I come, the site looks different — new pits are dug.”
Another Egyptologist, Wahiba Saleh, raised the alarm about widespread looting at Dahshour, a 4,500-year-old necropolis where she is chief inspector. A campaign led by Hanna and international news reports led to more police and soldiers guarding that site.
“Oh, my God!” she exclaims over Trib photos of Abu Sir al Malaq. “There aren't any free spots. Every place is dug up. It's worse than Dahshour.”
She shakes her head and tsk-tsks through the images, then whispers: “This makes me very sad.”
In cool, professional terms, Ikram assesses that too many sites have been “plundered and tossed about so that, archaeologically, it is very difficult to reconstruct … a huge loss for mankind.”
For Egyptians “who feel keenly about their past,” she adds, it is “a personal violation of the worst sort.”
Betsy Hiel is the Tribune-Review's foreign correspondent. Email her at email@example.com.