CAIRO – In Abusir, home to an ancient cemetery dating to the Old Kingdom, the first peak of Egyptian civilization, looters broke into tombs in February 2011, removing parts of their interior décor and stealing artifacts that may never be recovered.
The tombs that were robbed were flat-topped rectangular structures made out of mud brick that held some of the most eminent Egyptians of the time.
“These are mastaba tombs four and a half thousand years old and no one knew what was in them,” said Ladislav Bares, a member of the Czech Institute of Egyptology at Charles University in Prague who has worked in Egypt since 1974. “Part of the original evidence that was unexcavated has been lost, or very presumably has been lost. It might have been lost forever.”
The often-irrevocable disappearance of artifacts like those that vanished from Abusir’s Pharaonic-era tombs diminishes prospects for comprehensive understanding of Egypt’s prized heritage. Looting here dates back thousands of years but is rampant as the nation suffers from seemingly nonstop political unrest.
“In terms of our understanding of ancient Egypt’s culture and history,” said Salima Ikram, professor of Egyptology at the American University in Cairo, “we are losing a huge body of evidence that would have permitted us to interpret the life and death and intellectual and religious life of the ancient Egyptians.”
Since the 2011 uprising against Hosni Mubarak, the nation’s security network has become largely ineffective and the economy has deteriorated rapidly. Both have led to a spike in crime alongside violent political turmoil and an increased flow of arms. Criminals no longer fear law enforcement and many archaeological sites and museums are poorly guarded. Countless unexcavated sites across the country have been looted, experts said.
“The number of weapons has proliferated so the few guards that exist can’t do anything against them because they don’t have automatic weapons,” Ikram said. She said bandits now also have vehicles with four-wheel drive, making unprotected ancient sites in the middle of the desert easily accessible.
Some of the looters are villagers who haphazardly dig for treasure they know could reap small fortunes, experts said. Others work in organized gangs that belong to a long-established infrastructure of criminals.
“Most of them were in place beforehand but now their empires are expanding,” Ikram said.
The main setback of criminal raids on unexcavated sites is that even if objects are recovered, they lose locational and historical contexts that would allow experts to assess their significance.
“It would be very difficult to determine where objects came from,” said Monica Hanna, an archaeologist who documents looting nationwide, “and where it lies within the geographical context is important. It tells us about a lot of things.”
Antiquities are also being destroyed due to land grabs, experts said, as villagers who are seeking to extend property and agricultural land take over unexcavated zones. This began before the uprising against Mubarak but since worsened, experts said.
“After that point, there really was no control over anyone or any place,” Ikram said. “People were putting up all kinds of walls and taking spaces, and sometimes they would dig in order to acquire antiquities.”
“That means that space is lost to us forever,” she said.
And there is no end to damage in sight. Following a new wave of unrest that began with the overthrow of the nation’s leader, Mohamed Morsi, in early July, looting has worsened, Hanna said.
“Looting, treasure hunting has been going on since ancient Egypt, thousands of years,” Hanna said. “Lately, it became like a gold fever.”
After Aug. 14, “it went totally out of control,” she said. That was the day security forces cleared two pro-Morsi protest camps in the capital, plowing them down with bulldozers and shooting dead hundreds of protesters.
In the restive hours that followed, unknown assailants burst into the Malawi National Museum in Egypt’s province of Minya. They stole, burned and destroyed around 1,000 artifacts including jewels, statues and coins dating from the birth of Egyptian history to the Islamic period, Unesco said.
Dozens of churches across the country, some of them with historic value, were also attacked and torched when assailants directed their anger with the government’s actions at the country’s Christians.
“Egypt’s exceptional cultural heritage is not only an inheritance of the past, reflecting its rich and diverse history, it is also a legacy for future generations and its destruction seriously weakens the foundations of Egyptian society,” said Irina Bokova, the director general of Unesco, in a statement.
Tourism and antiquities police have recovered more than 130 objects stolen from the Malawi museum, the state news agency MENA reported, and Unesco said it is working closely with Egyptian authorities to fight illicit movement of the objects that remain missing.
Sizable artifacts can leave the country in shipping crates from Egypt’s ports, hidden in raw materials like sand, while others move across poorly controlled land borders or are transported on planes, Hanna said.
“I firmly condemn the attacks against the cultural institutions of the country and the looting of its cultural property,” Bokova said. “This constitutes irreversible damage to the history and identity of the Egyptian people.”