A look at satellite images of Giza’s Al-Lisht and Al-Hibeh sites from 2010 to the present is shocking, to say the least.
In three years, illegal excavators have created a long trail of holes in the sites’ sandy plateaus. This, unfortunately, is not unique to archeological sites close to the capital. Since January 2011, organized smuggling groups, with the occasional help of some local community members, have been digging up heritage sites across the country, at times turning them into playgrounds or cemeteries to obscure their origins. It has dramatically exacerbated a centuries-old problem.
The looting of sites, museums and storage facilities in central Cairo, Giza, Alexandria, the Delta region, Upper Egypt and the North Sinai area has more than doubled over the same three-year period, according to an official report submitted by the government to the US State Department in April. This report supports a request for import restrictions on Egyptian heritage objects into the US.
“The US is one of the biggest markets for Egyptian artifacts,” says Yasser al-Naggar, deputy mission chief at the Egyptian Embassy in Washington, where embassy officials say they have witnessed a significant rise in undocumented objects appearing on the market since March 2011.
Existing legislation does not allow US Customs and Border Protection officers to stop the entry of small statues and objects, Naggar explains.
He is optimistic, however, that this might change very soon. On June 2, the US State Department’s Cultural Property Advisory Committee will review Egypt’s request, which applies to Egyptian archeological and ethnological materials from prehistoric through Ottoman times.
The committee, which includes museum, archeology and international sale of cultural property experts, as well as representatives of the general public, will advise the US president about signing a bilateral agreement with the Egyptian government in accordance with the 1983 Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act and the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property.
Currently, 16 countries have cultural property agreements with the US, including Canada, Italy, Bolivia, Bulgaria, Greece, Cambodia and Iraq.
The ban imposed by such agreements does two things, says Naggar. It gives the governments legal grounds to reclaim all looted items in the US, even if they came in before the ban. It also alerts US customs personnel to keep an eye out for such items.
“We want to enforce the ban, and go after the looters and smugglers, after anyone who has an item and is trying to sell it,” says Naggar.
In its review, the State Department committee will assess the extent of damage caused by the illegal trade to Egypt, the relevance of the US market to the problem, and measures Egypt has undertaken to combat it, such as securing archeological and heritage sites, training local police and customs officials, and educating the local population on cultural heritage.
Groups opposing the ban argue that the Egyptian government has not exerted enough effort to stop the problem at its source, and that such a ban could harm the interests of legal collectors and auction houses.
Naggar, who will represent Egypt alongside the Antiquities Ministry in the review session, disagrees.
“By account of the US State Department, our proposal is very comprehensive,” he says. Over the past three years, the Egyptian government has been working on providing security for sites and meeting the committee’s requests, he adds, and it has also worked closely with State Department officials on collecting all relevant documentation to support its case.
The problem, Naggar argues, is that auction houses require governments to provide documents proving their ownership of the artifacts. This is not always possible, as in recent years much of the looting has occurred not just in museums, but at sites that have not yet been officially excavated, so the objects are not registered.
The problem is not Egypt-specific. The illicit trade in antiquities is one of the five most profitable illegal businesses globally, according to the International Coalition to Protect Egyptian Antiquities. It is often linked to international drugs, weapons and human trafficking networks and effects both developing and developed countries.
Archeologist Monica Hanna, who will also testify expert in the upcoming review session as a non-governmental representative, agrees that the international community needs to come together to address the illegal trade in antiquities.
Hanna founded the online advocacy group Egypt’s Heritage Task Force to raise awareness on the destruction and looting of Egyptian heritage sites, and recently started an online petition to support the government’s request for the ban. She has gathered over 1,000 signatures in two weeks. She is basing her testimony on an 80-page report documenting the attacks on ancient Egyptian, Islamic and Coptic historical objects using both satellite images and systematic fieldwork. The ban, she argues, would help reduce incentives for pillaging and looting.
The cooperation between the Egyptian Embassy in Washington, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Antiquities Ministry and archeologists in Egypt and the US is set to continue. A strong bond has been formed over the past three years, with groups working on documenting the damage and communicating it to the general public in Egypt and abroad.
In March, Egypt’s government also signed a public-private partnership with the International Coalition to Protect Egyptian Antiquities in order to implement a series of programs aimed at tackling the problem at its core. Planned initiatives include training Egyptian officials for physical site protection, conducting the first nationwide inventory of all excavated antiquities, digitizing old records and making them available online, public education and awareness campaigns, and promoting the development of small businesses around tourist sites to create economic incentive for their protection.
Groups have also been negotiating with eBay and auction houses to consult with the government and experts before putting objects up for bidding, and to remove those with incomplete documentation about their sources.
Still, the US ban would help push things forward, says Naggar, who hopes that “once we have the memorandum of understanding with the US we can take it everywhere, because this is one of the biggest markets for stolen antiquities.”