The post revolution elation has masked a disturbing uptick in archeological plunder.
The euphoria with which Egyptians greeted the ouster of Hosni Mubarak in February was quickly tempered by the news—at first denied by officials, but later confirmed—that thieves had stolen several priceless objects from the Egyptian Museum, including pieces from the tomb of the pharaoh Tutankhamun, among them a gilded wooden statuette of the king and a silver trumpet. Over the next few days, there were more alarming reports: police throughout Egypt had abandoned their posts, leaving hundreds of archeological sites unguarded. A few weeks later, Zahi Hawass, the director of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, resigned. Though he later resumed his post as minister of archeological affairs, the SCA was left rudderless and confused in his absence. Gangs of armed treasure hunters took advantage of the chaos and began plundering ancient tombs and antiquities storerooms throughout Egypt. The robberies are ongoing and thought to exceed 400 incidents so far.
Antiquities theft is as old as the pyramids, but never before has it so shocked Egyptians. The Egyptian press voiced the public’s revulsion at the desecration, and hundreds of youthful protestors and ordinary citizens in Cairo and Luxor volunteered to stand guard at museums and archeological sites. It was a noble gesture but a futile one. There are simply too many sites to protect in such an ad hoc way.
In truth, no one knows how many archeological sites are in Egypt: 5,000 is an oft-quoted figure, but other experts say there are many more. Some sites are tiny—graffiti scratched on a cliff face, or a small cemetery. Others, like Giza, cover several square kilometers filled with thousands of tombs and pyramids. Thebes (modern Luxor) boasts thousands of tombs, temples, shrines, and villages. The Valley of the Kings alone is chockablock with scores of elegantly decorated tombs, including that of the boy king Tutankhamun. Sites lie beneath the streets of modern cities, in fields along the Nile, in desert wastelands, and distant oases—even beneath the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. They span thousands of years and represent several cultural and religious traditions—Neolithic, dynastic Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim. In Egypt, one is rarely out of sight of an ancient monument.
Unfortunately, it is no exaggeration to say that every one of them is threatened with destruction—and theft and vandalism are the least of the problems. The graver threats are more subtle: changes in the environment, such as increasing temperatures and humidity, air pollution, and rising ground water; the expansion of industries, farms, and cities into archeological zones; and, perhaps worst of all, the growth of mass tourism and the burgeoning infrastructure required to support it.
The job of the SCA is to protect Egypt’s historical sites, but it’s an uphill battle being fought with a limited and outdated arsenal. The SCA is a bloated bureaucracy. It employs 58,000 people; about two thirds are local security guards, poorly paid, untrained, and unarmed. There are also between 20,000 and 30,000 Tourist and Antiquities Police, part of the Ministry of the Interior (not the SCA), who are posted at sites and museums most heavily visited by foreign tourists. Though a pervasive presence, they are an unreliable one, as demonstrated by their immediate and wholesale disappearance early in the revolution. Many still have not returned to duty.