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Egyptian scholar fights archaeological looting with exposure on social media

April 29, 2014 at 6:46 PM EST
In the aftermath of Egypt's 2011 revolution and resulting political turmoil, the nation's treasured antiquities have been increasingly under threat of looting, vandalism and violence. In our series Culture at Risk, Jeffrey Brown examines the emergency facing Egypt’s rich archaeological heritage and one scholar’s efforts to publicize the problem.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And finally tonight to Egypt, where the remains of some 50 royal mummies were discovered in a huge tomb in the Valley of the Kings, the country’s antiquities minister said yesterday. The relics are thought to date back to more than 1,500 years before Christ.

That find has drawn new attention to Egypt’s rich, but increasingly threatened, archaeological heritage, and a new approach to saving it.

Jeffrey Brown has the story, part of his series Culture at Risk.

NARRATOR: The 4,000-year-old Temples of Karnak in Egypt are now being restored. These first pictures show the amount of work being carried out by the Egyptian authorities, working in cooperation with experts from Chicago University.

JEFFREY BROWN: For decades, Egyptian and international archaeologists have worked to carefully excavate and preserve some of the world’s most treasured historical sites and objects, the ancient Pyramids of Giza, the Valley of the Kings, the tomb of King Tut, and much else thousands of years old, much of it yet to be unearthed.

In the aftermath of Egypt’s January 25, 2011 revolution, which threw out longtime leader Hosni Mubarak, competing interests have jockeyed for political control. There’s a security vacuum in parts of the country, tourists have largely stayed away, and Egypt’s antiquities have been increasingly under threat from looting, vandalism, illegal development and violence.

Just in January, a car bomb targeting Cairo’s security directorate did major damage to the Museum of Islamic Art across the street. And last summer, thieves broke into the Malawi National Museum in the upper Egyptian city of Minya, burning or destroying nearly 50 artifacts and taking with them more than 1,000 objects.

MONICA HANNA, Archaeologist: The more chaotic the political situation appears and the more that the security is afraid, and the more the looting will continue.

JEFFREY BROWN: Archaeologist Monica Hanna was at that site and others to document the damage. She’s the founder of an organization called Heritage Task Force. And she spoke with us recently during a visit to the U.S.

MONICA HANNA: The problem is very serious.

The amount of sites that are being looted, the amount of archaeological sites that are being destroyed because of the looting is very high. And the amount of objects leaving their archaeological context, losing their provenance and their history forever, and going on the antiquities market is very high.

JEFFREY BROWN: Who is doing the looting? And how organized is it?

MONICA HANNA: We have two types of looters.

We have the very organized mafias that work for very famous antiquities dealers. They have access to the archaeological knowledge. They come to the sites with four-wheel drives, with Jeosonars, with very, very high-technological weapons coming from Libya.

So even the local guards cannot really stand in front of them. And they know what exactly to excavate and where to excavate. The other people are the regular villagers. Usually, young youth and children are sent by a local person to find the objects, and they give them money.

JEFFREY BROWN: In February, Egyptian tourism police announced they’d broken up a major smuggling ring, recovering thousands of stolen objects. But it remains a pervasive problem.

GEN. MUMTAZ FATHI, Assistant to Tourism Minister (through interpreter): We have apprehended dozens of people with digging equipment. Maybe on a daily basis, there are at least seven to 10 cases of illicit excavation.

JEFFREY BROWN: Last month, Egypt’s antiquities minister asked the Obama administration to impose emergency restrictions on the importation of ancient artifacts. Those would allow U.S. customs officials to seize objects that lack official documentation.

The U.S. State Department says it’s open to the idea, but the formal request will take time to submit and approve. But Hanna says a global effort is needed.

MONICA HANNA: I don’t think the rest of the world is doing enough. And, again, we need to target older markets, because if we stop the market in the U.S., the market will shift to Dubai, the market will shift to Eastern Europe or Western Europe. It has to be an international effort.

JEFFREY BROWN: In the meantime, she’s turning a relatively new tool, social media, using Twitter, for example, to sound the alarm and pressure authorities to do more.

On Facebook, she’s posted hundreds of photos of illegally excavated sites, some with human remains scattered about.

MONICA HANNA: The fastest thing to report a heritage problem, rather than going to speak to the media, is just tweeting or writing a post on Facebook, where journalists have access to, people can read, people can get informed. The spreading of the awareness creates a pressure on the different governmental bodies to take actions and take concrete steps.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, how easy is it to go into these sites? Are you invited in? Do you sometimes have to sneak in?

MONICA HANNA: Most of the time, we get invited by the local inspectors, who are very afraid on the archaeological site. But they have nothing in their hands to do.

So, what we do is that we go, take photographs. If it is safe enough, we draw sketches. And we post them on Facebook. We send them to the media. We just publicize the problem as much as possible.

JEFFREY BROWN: This can be dangerous work, though, right?

MONICA HANNA: For example, one time, I was shot at in Dahshur in the archaeological site, in the Memphite Necropolis. The looters there started shooting in the air while I was driving because they saw that I was taking photographs.

Another time, in another site called Abu Sir Al-Maleq, I was also attacked and they tried to confiscate the camera.

JEFFREY BROWN: So why do this? Why did you start this work in the first place?

MONICA HANNA: Because I’m Egyptian, and I have had a good education.

And so I’m a bridge between the two worlds, and because no one else was doing it. Most of the foreign archaeological missions are very scared to speak up on the looting, because they can risk losing their concessions. The local inspectors are not empowered enough. They do not have the channels to speak up, so someone had to voice out the crime that’s going on.

JEFFREY BROWN: For her efforts, Monica Hanna was recently given an award from the New York-based preservation group Saving Antiquities for Everyone.