By Yomna El-Saeed
The Egyptian monuments have always been in danger. They have never been properly valued, preserved, or marketed. More importantly, instants of vandalism are not punished and stealing and smuggling smaller objects or parts of larger structures has been an underground business that has been around forever. Unfortunately, the situation has gotten worse ever since the revolution erupted in 2011, and is getting direr as time passes. This is because the security is insufficient, the officials throughout the different cabinets never did their jobs properly and the attention of the public is generally directed to politics and the latest news, rather than remnants of the past.
To bring this untenable situation to the attention of the public, the Egyptian centre for Economic and Social Rights (ECESR) along with Egypt’s Heritage Task Force, organised a press conference on Thursday 19 September with the title Save Egypt’s Heritage for its Future. It tackled the archaeological violations and the tampering with the country’s rich touristic resources amid the security vacuum and the deficiency of the different Egyptian institutions to preserve, or even develop a plan to preserve, or utilise them correctly as a possible important source of national revenue.
The conference’s agenda consisted of a short documentary video and three presentations that address the issue comprehensively from three different angles. The tracing of the problems and the compilation of material were based on the personal efforts of the presenters, who have all been working hard without any help from official channels.
At the beginning, humanitarian activist Malek Mostafa, one of the main organisers, briefly said that the main target of this conference was to shed light on the immense violations and abuse the monuments have faced lately. He said: “If we want to build a new Egypt, the most important thing to do is preserve its heritage.”
The two-minute video that was shown documented the destruction that has taken place by people and the thefts that were carried out by organised gangs amid the security vacuum after the revolution in different archaeological sites. It included the latest destruction and robbery of the Mallawi Museum, the largest and most important museum in Upper Egypt, and its loss of 1,050 pieces out of a collection of 1,080.
Engineer Omneya Abdel Barr, an architect who works on different restoration projects in Islamic Cairo, gave the first presentation. She said she always opts to start every speech with the fact that before the start of global attention and conferences to preserve the monuments and heritage in the 1940’s, there was a project presented by an architect to King Fouad. It designated Cairo, the city itself, as the first and most important monument, making a case for Cairo to be viewed as a whole medium and an urban tissue, rather than a building here or a monument there, emphasising the vastness of the Cairene heritage. She added that Egypt has registered only seven sites as UNESCO world heritage sites, while many countries that do not possess the richness of the Egyptian heritage registered more than 20.
She continued her presentation, mentioning that the laws that are supposed to preserve the historical monuments treat the monuments as single units while ignoring the whole area around them, or “their campuses,” as she said. She gave examples of archaeological sites that were demolished or vandalised like the area around Ahmed Ibn Toloun mosque. This area was characterised by its unique architecture and its circular oriel windows. Now, only the mosque remains and its surroundings are gone. She mentioned another law that prohibits erecting high buildings around architectural monuments that is frequently violated. She showed pictures of twelve-floor buildings right next to the Al-Imam Al-Shafei mosque.
She went on to show examples, which showed clearly that the way the government officially deals with endangered buildings is reckless, by presenting pictures of a archaeological sites; the windows of one building were blocked with red bricks by the government to keep thieves out and at another site, the only thing the government did was construct a wall around it without doing anything to the endangered building itself.
Abdel Barr also mentioned how ancient gates were demolished because of negligence and lack of awareness. As an example, she mentioned an ancient gate that was situated on land owned by the mufti of Egypt at the time of King Fouad, whose granddaughter recently demolished the gate in order to utilise the land. She ended her presentation by comparing the room prices of hotels that overlook an archaeological site with those who do not, emphasising that archaeological sites can be used to support the economy. She ended her presentation with a stern warning: “What has been demolished has gone [forever] with its memory, so let’s keep the rest we still have.”
The second presentation was by tour guide Sally Soliman, who talked about the value of deserted monuments and how they can be used as attractive touristic sites. She started by talking about El-Darb El-Ahmar, a Cairo neighbourhood that has been a slum for decades, saying that it is “a million times more important than Al-Moez street” because of its affluent monuments. Presently, garbage is everywhere and covers all the important sites. She stated that the surprising and infuriating fact is, and she said she is an eyewitness to this, is that it is the government that dumps that garbage there, not the local residents.
She then mentioned a number of deserted places, like the Beit El-Razaz palace, which was renovated and cost the government about EGP 200m only to be closed after all the work was done, instead of being used to attract tourists. Among the high risk places that are totally deserted are the old alleys, cafes and the baths that inspired Naguib Mahfouz to write his Nobel Prize winning novels. They are all now full of nothing but garbage. She described her embarrassment when tourists ask about them and expressed an interest to visit the places that served as a backdrop to Mahfouz’s stories. She said: “Of course, I can never take them there.”
Soliman then moved to point out how the identities of important places are being blurred in order to disconnect the people from them so that later on, they can be used improperly without anyone protesting. She gave the example of the Champollion Palace, which, in fact, has nothing to do with Champollion. It was actually owned by Prince Saeed Haleem, a former Egyptian prime minister and “its state is currently deteriorating.” She continued by pointing out how the Baron Palace was sold to a businessman during Mubarak’s regime, only to have a banner hung on its wall declaring that it belongs to the Ministry of Culture. The only renovation of the Baron Palace thus far was the fake grass and spotlights in the garden, while the palace itself is on the verge of collapsing.
The third, and the saddest, presentation was by archaeologist Dr Monica Hanna, who addressed the continuous looting and vandalism of ancient Egyptian archaeological sites.
She started with Al-Mattareya, historically known as Old Own and consisting of two main temples, was where Plato learned philosophy and Pythogorous learned geometry. The government itself has violated it by building the new Thursday market there. Another section of it is now a cars shop, and workshop owners use it as storage for their old furniture. Furthermore, four high buildings were erected where the western gate of the temples used to be.
She gave examples of other sites like the Sphinx, Abou Seer, the Deir El- Hawa church, the Saqqara pyramid, the black pyramid and the wells of the Pharonic Middle Kingdom. The real problem is that these places were never excavated in a correct scientific way, which led to the ancient artefacts being stolen before their history was known or documented.
Dr Hanna also talked about the recent looting of the Mallawi Museum in Upper Egypt. It was systematically looted for three days in a row without any intervention from security forces.
The thugs who steal monuments and artefacts are in organised gangs, highly armed and often use children in the process of their excavations. “The official numbers state that in the last year 20 children died during these activities, but I believe that the real number is a hundred times higher,” she said.
She finished her speech by emphasizing that “so far, there is no security plan to protect Egypt’s monuments.”
After the three presentations, the speakers entertained questions from the attending journalists, and discussions started.
Dr. Hanna, in one of the discussions, said: “The main bulwark to protect the monuments should be the Egyptian people themselves and not the laws, but the problem is that Egyptians do not feel a relationship with their monuments. For more than 30 years, especially in the recent 10 years under Zahy Hawas, Egyptians were kept away from their heritage. He used to order all museums and tourist attractions to be closed during feasts and public holidays to protect the monuments from being vandalized by Egyptians. During his time, the general public started to firmly believe that the monuments belong to the government and foreign tourists, but not to them. They started to believe that Egyptology is a foreign science they see on National Geographic, not a local one.”
Mostafa said: “The Ministry of Antiquities receives huge amounts of donations and foreign funds. So its failure and the dereliction [of the monuments] is due to the deep and rampant corruption there, not because of the lack of financial resources.”
Abdel Barr called for freezing all of the construction projects until the laws that protect the monuments are reviewed.
At the end, Dr Hanna thanked the ECESR and activists Malek Mostafa and Malek Adly, who gave them legal and humanitarian support.
The conference was closed with the announcement that the organisers are suing the Ministry of Antiquities to obligate it to protect and secure what is left of the monuments and recover what was stolen. On 24 October, a press conference will be held to inform the public about the case.