By Monica Hanna and Salima Ikram
The looting of antiquities sites, both urban and rural, is continuing throughout Egypt, contributing to the dramatic loss of the country’s heritage. Unfortunately, with police and military presence at archaeological and urban sites still insufficient, there is no one to stop the looting.
The increase in looting is allied to the worsening economic situation in Egypt, coupled with the lack of security. People still think that pharaonic sites are filled with gold and treasures, just waiting to be dug up, so now, with no one to stop them, more people are looking for the nearest place where they can go dig for gold, then other artefacts that they can sell for immediate revenue.
This idea that gold is readily available is an old and mistaken one; few pharaonic era tombs had a lot of gold, and most of those had been robbed at least 200 years ago, if not longer.
Recently, sites in Beni Suef in particular have suffered acutely from looters; in fact, if one asks to rent a car to go to Beni Suef, the drivers casually ask, “Oh, you are going to buy antiquities. I know someone who can help you,” as we know from personal experience. Abu Sir Al-Maleq is now considered the best place to buy “coloured sarcophagi”.
In most of the public cafés in the city centre, and particularly in Al-Wasta, antiquities dealing is a common daily practice. All one has to do is to sit in a café, look like a stranger and wait to be approached by someone who has artefacts for sale. Much of this material is probably coming from two important sites in the area, namely Al-Hiba and Abu Sir Al-Maleq.
The police has reported several cases of illicit digging at both sites. The modern village of Abu Sir Al-Maleq is of approximately 20,000 inhabitants, according to the 2006 national consensus, and lies about 10 km from Meidum. The archaeological site lies right behind the village’s church and is composed of 500 acres of land that was inhabited from at least 3250 BCE until about 700 CE, containing the entire history of Egypt until just after the Arab Conquest.
The identity of the people carrying out the looting is not certain, but they seem to be from every walk of life. In addition to local looters, organised gangs from other places in the Nile Valley are also digging at the site. Once gently undulating sand, the site is now a pock-marked lunar landscape with dense scatters of mummy wrappings pulled off bodies, and huge piles of bones. Wrapped limbs and heads of people who were buried here more than 2000 years ago now lie dismembered and scattered about the site. Obviously, several artefacts have been recovered from here; the pillagers hide their loot on-site in convenient tombs and covered by desiccated reeds and maize stalks.
In addition to coloured sarcophagi and coffins that are offered for sale in the area, shabtis (funerary faience figurines), amulets, glazed ceramics, pots, bead necklaces, bead bracelets, and chunks of inscription, hacked out of the limestone walls, are on offer. Dealers of various levels are clearly coming to buy objects here, and then taking them to their stores or distribution points in both rural and urban locations. The smaller objects are of higher prices because they can be smuggled easier outside of Egypt while a complete sarcophagus with its mummy might be of a lower price due to the difficulty in its transportation.
All of the sites that are being looted are suffering, as objects are being ripped undocumented from their contexts, without which the knowledge that they can impart is greatly diminished. The case of Abu Sir Al-Maleq is particularly tragic as it has never been fully excavated. The site has connections to Osiris, god of the dead, and was of great religious significance.
One of the most ancient sections, containing the graves of the Nagada II (3250-3050 BCE) era, was excavated by Otto Rubensohn in 1902-04. He also found 18th Dynasty (1550-1070 BCE) burials as well as priestly graves of the Late Period (712-332 BCE). A black sarcophagus belonging to Pakhus, currently in the Meidum storage house, has been found in the area. In 1905-06 Georg Möller also found burials of the Second Intermediate/Hyksos period (1640-1532 BCE). The archaeology of the Hyksos period is limited, with the majority of evidence coming from the Delta. Thus, any site with evidence of the history of that era, particularly one from this part of Egypt, is a treasure.
In addition to these tombs, a temple of the 30th Dynasty was also found near the village mosque. Caliph Marwan Al-Ja’di (744-751) of the Umayyad Dynasty is also said to have died very close to the monastery of Abu Sir Al-Maleq; a vase belonging to him said to have been found in the area is currently on display in the Museum of Islamic Art in Cairo. Although some archaeological work has been carried out at Abu Sir el-Melq, enormous parts of it have never been scientifically investigated and it was a site filled with potential to better understand the history of Egypt, particularly in its very early and late phases.
Egyptian state bodies, civil society organisations and citizens all need to act immediately and work together for the protection of the country’s archaeological heritage. The different stakeholders of Egyptian heritage need to get actively involved in the study, protection and preservation of this heritage. Egypt’s future lies in its past, and with its loss, lies a dim future with lesser opportunities for the coming generations.
The potential Egypt has through its palimpsest of culture is enormous; its unique assets should provide economic and nationalistic values for its citizens. Each object that goes on the antiquities market loses its context and so loses its own history and that of the period it represents. It is like losing different pieces of a massive jigsaw.
It is a tragedy that we will not know more about those who lived and died here, in Abu Sir Al-Maleq; their beliefs and their lives. Only salvage archaeology can help at this point, and should be encouraged, or we will lose all evidence of Egypt’s rich past in this area.