Egypt's cultural identity is threatened by the recent widespread looting and destruction of its archaeological sites. But why do people loot their own fragile heritage? Are local communities to blame for such widespread acts of cultural vandalism? Or is the problem far more complex?

Spaces and objects from the past are a constituent part of every nation’s cultural identity, and are regarded as the most fragile of assets. As Confucius said, ‘Study the past if you would define the future’. Such wise words are just as relevant today as they were in Confucius’s time; if we lose Egypt’s past, we will lose its future as well. Unfortunately, Egypt’s struggle towards freedom has taken a very heavy toll on its cultural resources due to the systematic looting and destruction of archaeological sites across the country. The demand for Egyptian antiquities has always been high on the black market, and recent soaring prices have spurred organized criminals to work through local inhabitants to loot sites on a grand scale. The opening of new markets for antiquities in the Gulf Area and Eastern Europe has also led to a greater demand for Egyptian objects from different historical periods. This excessive looting results in the destruction of archaeological evidence and the loss of history; it presents an immediate need for the preservation of the past, while highlighting conflicts over the different ways in which spaces that witnessed the past are valued. The problem lies not only in organized crime, but also in the current lack of political will to preserve the Egyptian past. The value of Egyptian heritage lies in commemorating the country’s past and defining its collective identity and cultural memory. With widespread looting and destruction, both culture and identity become diluted. People use spaces and objects both to define themselves and to teach new generations about the failures and successes of the past, all of which have formed the reality of their present.

Engraving of the Antinoupolis triumphal arch (destroyed in the 1810s) as it appeared in the 1790s in the Description de l’Egypte showing almost no modern village and two columns (circled) which are still in situ. Top left (2006): The same two columns in front of a pink house marking the (until recently) eastern limit of the village and western limit of the antiquities zone. Bottom (2012): The same two columns (circled) as they are engulfed by new illegal housing on top of the antiquities zone. The foreground houses are being built on top of the triumphal arch location.



Looting is an outcome of how modern people have come to see the past as a function of two major values: beauty and money. In seventeenth-century Europe, ‘cabinets of curiosities’ were a sign of status, containing artefacts, geological fossils, and different memorabilia collected from the exotic world the westerners were exploring. These cabinets grew into museums, which allowed the public access to such collections, assembled though both legal and illegal means. At the same time, wealthy collectors continued to buy art for their own special collections, selecting objects for their aesthetic value and excluding them from any public access for cultural or scientific investigations. Unfortunately, today several museums still continue to purchase Egyptian pieces for their collections, motivated by the attention such objects bring from a wide range of audiences. Art dealers who work with Egyptian objects make massive profits because both collectors and museums are always willing to buy at the highest prices. These high prices, which can reach hundreds of thousands of dollars for a single artefact, encourage looters to destroy archaeological sites in cold blood while searching for valuable objects. Heritage is thus reduced to its economic value at the moment it is auctioned.

Locals who are willing to dig illicitly at their neighbouring archaeological sites are often unable to see beyond the immediate  economic gain to the loss of their heritage and their history. However, while the looters may do the digging, the collectors arguably have more dirt on their hands, since they create the demand. Museums must also take some of the blame; acquiring objects is still a goal for some, and though they no longer directly loot sites, they do unintentionally provide legitimacy to such illegal acts by displaying items looted in the past. Through all conflicts, the local communities, whose looted pieces represent their cultural heritage and their pride, are left out of the equation. Who is the real owner of such artefacts? The Egyptian state? The Egyptians? Looters? Collectors? Or international museums?

Looting is the outcome of how modern people have come to see the past through two major values: beauty and money.

Before the Egyptian revolution in January 2011, development constituted the main threat to archaeological sites; mega-projects rarely took into consideration the archaeological sites that could be affected. Today, however, we face unplanned urban and agricultural expansion by locals on archaeological sites, which is, of course, carried out after the site has been completely looted and emptied of all objects. This is a double loss, where no archaeological evidence remains and the past is lost for good. This problem is a result of years of disconnection between Egyptians and their heritage. Historically, Egyptians have been excluded from writing their history. Egyptology and related disciplines mainly started as oriental studies – the West studying the East – with all its colonial implications. Egyptian specialists have always struggled to set foot in these different disciplines; historical knowledge, usually written in foreign languages, was very difficult to access, while communities living around archaeological sites, or in buildings with heritage value, have rarely been able to find useful information, mainly because it was never written for them. Heritage knowledge remained in closed academic circles and within foreign-language coffee-table books, while the only information reaching local communities came from the diluted and fragmentary historical accounts read in social studies textbooks during formal state education. Communities have always been looked on as the enemy of heritage, as people who needed to be kept out, a nuisance to foreign tourists. Labels in the ‘Valley of the Kings’ are written only in English, alienating all local visitors who could not read or understand the language; the Giza Plateau was closed to Egyptians during the Sham el-Nessim festival; museums intimidated Egyptians, who were not as welcome as foreign tourists. The list goes on. This is how heritage has been governed in Egypt; it has been imprisoned within museums and in walled-off sites, locked away from local communities.

Dahshur lies to the south of the Memphite Necropolis and contains seven pyramids. The oldest date to the fourth dynasty and were built during the reign of Snefru; these are the Bent (southern) and Red pyramids (northern). Later, during the Middle Kingdom, kings such as Senusert III, Amenemhat II, Amenemhat III, Amenyqemau, and a further unnamed king built pyramids in the area. Unfortunately, ever since the security failure in January 2011, systematic gangs of looters armed with machine guns have been excavating the area below the black pyramid from dusk to dawn, while the custodians can only look on, holding their small guns without ammunition. This area has also been used as a local cemetery, but suddenly, during the past two months, local villagers started to extend it massively, irrespective of the tiny size of the villages nearby. Apparently, a local contractor took over the land and is selling the cemetery at a low price to the villagers, who take advantage of the situation by looting whatever is below their plots. ‘The area has become a battlefield between gangs of looters, the local police unit and the army, while the ministry ignores the escalating violence! They do not care about the antiquities, and they do not care about us!’ said Ashraf Abulgheit, a local inhabitant of Manshiyet Dahshur.

The city of Antinoupolis, also known as Sheikh ‘Ibada, was built by Emperor Hadrian in AD 130 to commemorate his beloved Antinous, who drowned there. The site is located north of Mallawi in Middle Egypt, and is situated on the East Bank of the Nile. It was built over the ruins of an earlier settlement, possibly dating to the New Kingdom, when Ramesses II built a temple dedicated to the gods of Hermopolis and Heliopolis. The site was later heavily re-used during the Coptic Period, when five monasteries were built in the area. The southern sector of the city of Antinous was dominated by a famous hippodrome, equaled only by the Circus Maximus in Rome. Today, the whole city has suffered heavy looting, along with urban and agricultural expansion. At the eastern side of the site, large granite column pieces from the reign of the Roman emperor Hadrian have been moved from their original location and large holes for looting have been dug below them, while to the north, numerous ancient tombs have been illicitly excavated. In the same area, new houses have been built where a famous triumphal arch, documented in La Description de l’Egypte, once stood. Similar to Dahshur, modern illegal tombs have been constructed on the city’s ancient enclosure, at its eastern side, and also on the north side of the hippodrome, which has been bulldozed to make way for even more new tombs. The city’s enclosure wall and a Roman cemetery to the north of the city have also been bulldozed in favour of agricultural reclamation.

The area of the old monasteries, known as Deir al-Hawwa or Deir Maria, has also witnessed its fair share of looting, as looters hunt for coins, but most importantly papyrus fragments. The price of such fragments is very high on the antiquities market and villagers have reported finding large numbers.

Egyptian heritage now faces challenging times and the current government is ignoring the dangers. The Egyptians, who have suffered decades of marginalisation from their past, need to stand up and take responsibility for protecting the future of their heritage. We must save Egypt’s past, to be able to save its future. 

This article was first published in print in RAWI's ISSUE 5, 2013