Monday, 2 May 2011

How Can Egypt Protect Archaeological Sites From Destruction?

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Kent Weeks has a very well-presented piece in Newsweek called: Can Egypt Protect Its Ancient Monuments? which details some of the problems facing the country in the field of the preservation of its archaeological sites from damage and destruction. The text is well worth reading.

The archaeological sites of Egypt face many threats, one of the problems is that many of them sites are crowded into the same areas as modern activity, and the needs of looking after the legacy of the past have to be balanced with the present and future development of the country.
In truth, no one knows how many archeological sites are in Egypt: 5,000 is an oft-quoted figure, but other experts say there are many more. Some sites are tiny—graffiti scratched on a cliff face, or a small cemetery. Others, like Giza, cover several square kilometers filled with thousands of tombs and pyramids. Thebes (modern Luxor) boasts thousands of tombs, temples, shrines, and villages. The Valley of the Kings alone is chockablock with scores of elegantly decorated tombs, including that of the boy king Tutankhamun. Sites lie beneath the streets of modern cities, in fields along the Nile, in desert wastelands, and distant oases—even beneath the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. They span thousands of years and represent several cultural and religious traditions—Neolithic, dynastic Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim. In Egypt, one is rarely out of sight of an ancient monument.

Unfortunately, it is no exaggeration to say that every one of them is threatened with destruction — and theft and vandalism are the least of the problems. The graver threats are more subtle: changes in the environment, such as increasing temperatures and humidity, air pollution, and rising ground water; the expansion of industries, farms, and cities into archeological zones; and, perhaps worst of all, the growth of mass tourism and the burgeoning infrastructure required to support it.
Wider public attention has been drawn in recent weeks to the problem of their preservation by the looting which has taken place. In the last week of January, police throughout Egypt abandoned their posts, leaving hundreds of archaeological sites unguarded. Political changes left the the Supreme Council of Antiquities rudderless and confused: "Gangs of armed treasure hunters took advantage of the chaos and began plundering ancient tombs and antiquities storerooms throughout Egypt. The robberies are ongoing and thought to exceed 400 incidents so far". While the looting of sites is just one of the problems facing the antiquities preservation authorities in the country, it is one that takes up a large quantity of the resources available for the task. Weeks then turns to the organization which is charged with looking after these monuments, he describes the arsenal of resources it has to do this as limited and somewhat outdated.
The SCA is a bloated bureaucracy. It employs 58,000 people; about two thirds are local security guards, poorly paid, untrained, and unarmed.
There are also between 20,000 and 30,000 Tourist and Antiquities Police, part of the Ministry of the Interior (not the SCA), who are posted at sites and museums most heavily visited by foreign tourists. Though a pervasive presence, they are an unreliable one, as demonstrated by their immediate and wholesale disappearance early in the revolution. Many still have not returned to duty.
The SCA’s on-site inspectors, who are supposed to administer and preserve the country’s heritage, are underpaid and unmotivated. Most are young and —for the first few years, at least— enthusiastic about their job. But the low salary and near-universal reluctance of their superiors to delegate authority leads to frustration. A large number leave to become tourist guides. Instead of taking 300 Egyptian pounds a month from the SCA (about $50), they can earn six or seven times that amount as guides.
Let us note that Week's figures suggest that there are some 60 000 people who are employed as guards, to keep looters off the sites. Collectors who say "more should be done" to protect sites from looters have failed to suggest where the finances to employ even 60 000 people at a reasonable salary, let alone the number that would be required to keep an even closer watch. Surely nearly all this money could be saved and directed towards conservation if dealers and collectors would simply stop buying artefacts without any questions establishing they come from legitimate sources, thus reducing dramatically reducing the incentive to loot sites for collectables that will find a buyer even if illicitly obtained.

Looking after archaeological sites costs a lot of money, everywhere. Tourists visiting monuments (though not all sites) generate income but:
the SCA is perennially underfunded, even though archeological tourism generates considerable income. In December 2010 ticket sales to sites in Luxor alone earned $30 million for Egypt. But [since tourism is one of the country's main sources of income] much of this money goes to the government treasury.
As Weeks points out, "almost every branch of government wants some control over that income and wants as much of it as possible for themselves, focusing only on short-term gain". The pressures tourism inflicts on tombs and temples is enormous, yet no long-term comprehensive management plan to protect them has yet been agreed upon. Weeks mentions the redevelopment of Luxor to generate more tourist revenue which I wrote about on this blog last year."The plan is already doing irreparable harm to many of Luxor’s monuments, demolishing historic buildings, paving over archeological sites, moving whole villages and thousands of Egyptians far away from tourist centers and ancient monuments. Many archeologists and tourists, as well as many locals, believe that these acts are turning the largest archeological zone in the world into a gaudy theme park designed only to make money in the short term". Weeks makes some recommendations for the future:
What should be done to protect Egypt’s monuments? Here’s a list on which most Egyptologists agree:

Consult with local and international agencies and specialists to develop and implement long-term management plans.
Train on-site inspectors and give them greater responsibility.
Design better security for sites and museums.
Allocate more money for site conservation and documentation.
Take a strong stand against commercial and political interests that threaten the monuments.


Egypt’s archeological patrimony is humankind’s as well, and requires urgent efforts if it is to be saved for future generations. Egypt’s revolution, and the energy of the youth that drove it, captured the world’s imagination and gave renewed hope for the country’s future. It would be a tragedy if this were not also translated into a renewed commitment to its past
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Let us hope the new government that will eventually be created in place of military law will set about creating conditions for this to be put into action. We can help, by creating conditions in which the trade in illicit artefacts from the looting of sites and museum storerooms and galleries cannot function. That seems the least we can do to help the Egyptians protect the archaeological heritage of that part of the planet's surface.

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