Egyptians No Longer to Tolerate 'Cultural Desecration'

Article excerpt

DAHSHOUR, Egypt -- Tour guide Ahmed Shihab cried when he saw how thieves ravaged an ancient burial site here that includes a pyramid dating back nearly 4,000 years.

"This is our history and heritage, and they are selling it at a cheap, cheap price," he said.

Egypt's antiquities have been looted on an unprecedented scale since the 2011 revolution. At three sites the Tribune-Review examined, so many deep holes are dug into ancient tombs that the landscapes resemble Swiss cheese.

Human bones, mummified body parts, broken limestone sarcophagi and wooden coffins litter the sites.

Officials blame criminal gangs that arose amid the instability of the past two years. Impoverished villagers also take advantage of nationwide lawlessness to steal and sell artifacts.

Artist Youssef Abagui, who lives in Dahshour, calls it "a travesty of epic proportions ... a cultural desecration."

Archaeologists and Egyptologists agree.

Fekri Hassan, cultural heritage director at Egypt's French University, said the damage to many heritage sites "seems to threaten any possibility of recovery."

Officials have begun to react; soldiers and more police were placed here several months after a Trib report in February documented the looting.

"Every night, the army is guarding the pyramids. ... No one dares to go there," said Ahmed Ezzat, a local resident who has campaigned against looting.

"It is much better now," said Wahiba Saleh, Dahshour's chief antiquities inspector, and "a symbol of what can happen."

'Fragmented image' of history

Many Egyptians don't understand the value of their heritage, Saleh said, because "they don't consider ancient Egyptians their grandfathers. They consider them pagans and infidels."

She and others accuse some Islamic leaders of promoting that view. She recounted overhearing a sheikh urge followers to "break the pagan idols."

On an ultra-Islamist Salafi television channel, another sheikh told those who dig for "treasures'' to begin by reading passages from the Quran to guard against "the jinn," or spirits: "Whoever is digging, say 'In the name of Allah' with every hit of the axe, so that the jinn would go away," he declared.

A gold figurine "shouldn't be sold as a statue, it should be cut and sold, even if that decreases the price," he counseled, and a stone statue "cannot be sold or traded. It is forbidden, and it should be destroyed."

Officials -- before and after 2011 -- seem to have missed the potential of sites such as Dahshour for adjacent villages, despite tourism's profitability until the political upheaval of recent years. …