CAIRO – Taking advantage of Egypt's political upheaval, thieves have goneon a treasure hunt with a spree of illegal digging, preying on thecountry's ancient pharaonic heritage. Illegal digs near ancient temples and in isolated desert sites haveswelled a staggering 100-fold over the past 16 months since apopular uprising toppled Hosni Mubarak's 29-year regime andsecurity fell apart in many areas as police simply stopped doingtheir jobs. The pillaging comes on top of a wave of break-ins lastyear at archaeological storehouses -- and even at Cairo's famedEgyptian Museum, the country's biggest repository of pharaonicartifacts. Horrified archaeologists and antiquities authorities are scramblingto prevent smuggling, keeping a watch on European and Americanauction houses in case stolen artifacts show up there. |
"Criminals became so bold they are digging in landmark areas."including near the Great Pyramids in Giza, other nearby pyramidsand the grand temples of the southern city of Luxor, said Maj.-Gen.Abdel-Rahim Hassan, commander of the Tourism and Antiquities PoliceDepartment. "It is no longer a crime motivated by poverty, it's naked greed andit involves educated people," he said. In a country with more than 5,000 years of civilization buriedunder its sands, illegal digs have long been a problem. With onlyslight exaggeration, Egyptians like to joke you can dig anywhereand turn up something ancient, even if its just pottery shards or astatuette. But in the security void, the treasure hunting has mushroomed, with5,697 cases of illegal digs since the start of the anti-Mubarakuprising in early 2011-- 100 times more than the previous year,according to figures obtained by The Associated Press from theInterior Ministry, which is in charge of police.
Related crimes have risen as well -- 1,467 cases of illicit tradingin antiquities and 130 attempts to smuggle antiquities abroad. Atleast 35 people have been killed in incidents connected to illegaldigs, including 10 buried alive in the southern city of Naga Hamadiin March when the hole they dug in the ground caved in. Others werekilled in disputes when thieves fell out over sharing the finds,according to Interior Ministry officials familiar with theincidents. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they werenot authorized to talk to the press.
Those are just the crimes that police uncovered. In their digs, fortune hunters pick spots that are just outsidemajor archaeological sites in hopes that treasures can be foundsome distance beyond their parameters. Others dig in areas setaside for future excavations by the Supreme Council of Antiquities,Egypt's top state archaeological agency. Last month, police arrested two men who lived just behind thetemple of Khnum in the southern town of Esna for illegally diggingunder their homes. Police said they found a 10-yard deep hole underthe houses with hieroglyphic inscriptions dating to the Ptolemaicdynasty as well as ancient clay pots.
Farther south in the Nile-side city of Aswan, police last montharrested a government employee who also dug under his house,uncovering clay pots, an incense urn and tablets bearing images oflotus flowers. The ministry officials said the surge reflects in part the failureof the police to fully take charge of security after they meltedaway on Jan. 28 last year, after deadly clashes with protesters onthe fourth day of the 18-day anti-Mubarak uprising. Since then,many police have been balking at investigating crimes and pursuingcriminals, whether out of resentment over the "revolution" orbecause of the continued lack of strong political authority. The night of Jan.
28, thieves broke into the Egyptian Museum,located on the edge of Tahrir Square, the epicenter of theanti-regime uprising and scene of some of the bloodiest clashesbetween protesters and Mubarak's hated police. The robbers made offwith 51 pieces that were on display -- of which 29 have since beenrecovered. The most valuable stolen piece, a statue of the PharaohAkhenaten, was found by a 16-year-old protester and his familyreturned it to the museum, the antiquities ministry said at thetime. Soon after Mubarak's Feb, 11, 2011 ouster, the officials said, aJordanian man was caught trying to smuggle as many as 3,753artifacts out of Egypt.
These, they said, included 48 ancientEgyptian statutes, Roman Age coins and 45 pieces of jewelry datingfrom the Medieval years of the Islamic era. The months that followed saw a rash of break-ins at antiquitystorehouses around the country. "At the end, it's a question of security," said Ahmed Mustafa, whountil December headed a government department tasked withrecovering stolen artifacts. "The robberies of the warehouses tookplace in broad daylight by armed thieves.
Some were raided twice,"said Mustafa, who now lectures on archaeology at a private Cairocollege. One of the largest warehouse thefts took place a year ago in theSinai city of Qantara, from which roughly 800 artifacts were stolenor damaged by thieves. The pieces, according to regionalantiquities chief Mohammed Abdel-Maqsoud, were mostly clay pots,bronze coins and spears dating back to pharaonic and Islamic items. Nearly 300 of these have been recovered, he said.
Now that security has been beefed up at most warehouses, thieveshave turned to digging. Mansour Bureik, the chief archaeologist in the Luxor area, saidthere was little chance treasure hunters would run across gold andgems that they dream of -- which are found only in royal oraristocratic tombs. But Galal Mouawad, a senior archaeologist in the Giza area, saidthe potential for lucky strikes exist just about anywhere in thecountry. "Egyptians have over the centuries settled anywhere in Egypt untilthey have finally settled along the banks of the Nile," he said."There is something valuable to be found anywhere.".
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