On April 14, 2014, Monica Hanna, an Egyptologist and social media activist, spoke at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. She was introduced by Haleh Esfandiari, the Director of Middle East Programs at the Center. There were approximately forty (40) attendees in the audience.
Esfandiari indicated Hanna’s talk was co-sponsored by the Antiquities Coalition. Hanna is a Post-Doctoral Fellow at Humboldt University (Berlin) and was recently awarded the SAFE Beacon Award. She created Egypt’s “Heritage Task Force” as a social media platform to combat looting.
Dr. Hanna discussed serious damage done at several Pharaonic, Ptolemaic, Coptic, and Islamic sites. Those most at risk are in urban areas. A “Land Mafia” typically repurposes sites over time so they lose their character as archaeological sites in the mind of locals. Tactics include using the sites as garbage dumps, farms and cemeteries. Cemeteries in particular are difficult to remove for obvious reasons. Local government, Religious Institutes or even National Government ministries have also been at fault. They have built football pitches or even buildings adjoining or directly on archaeologically sensitive sites. In the process, monuments are either defaced or utterly destroyed. In this regard, Dr. Hanna displayed several slides that compared 19th century prints with present day vistas. In each case, significant monuments are no longer visible at all or have suffered considerable damage.
Villagers are a problem. Families with children go out for a picnic and then loot. There also is more organized looting that Hanna attributes to the illicit international antiquities trade. They use bulldozers and dynamite to destroy sites in search for loot. Hanna showed pictures of a looted Coptic site where religious reliefs were pried out from stonework. She also showed other pictures of looters’ pits where remnants of mummies and mummy cases were left behind. Apparently, families know not to store looted material in their houses because of the danger of arrest. Instead, they bury it elsewhere for later retrieval once a middleman is found.
Hanna next discussed looting and destruction at the Malawi Museum in Minya. She showed before and after slides of mummies that had been burnt by the mob. Unfortunately, mummies burn quite easily. Little kids destroyed pottery and other artifacts. She asked one teenager why he did it. In response, he told her, “Because they belong to the Government and I’m mad at the Government.” [Looting of the museum was tied to rioting following a military coup that overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood Government of deposed President Mohamed Morsi.] Hanna blamed the government for a slow response. She was finally able to persuade a local police official to bring his family along to drive out the looters. It took the army three days to send one tank to protect the museum. [This sounds familiar. The archaeological community registered similar complaints against the American Army’s alleged slow response to the looting of the Iraq National Museum.]
Hanna asserts that looting destroys history because 70% of an object’s historical value comes from the context in which it was found. [Others will disagree.] She advocates that activists report on anyone they believe is selling looted material.
Hanna then answered some questions. The first questioner [who appeared to be associated with the Wilson Center] asked about government involvement in looting, but Hanna did not answer that question. Instead, she maintained that 20% of the looting came from locals selling to antiquities dealers and 80% was attributable to “the Mafia.” She did not explain how she came by these figures. She indicated that there needs to be much better community outreach to stem looting. She wants to use social media to get information about sites being looted. She said that the same networks that move drugs and guns move antiquities. Again, she did not disclose the source of this information. She also stated that there are direct channels to middle men in the United States. Again, no source was provided for this information. She stated that two (2) recently looted artifacts surfaced at auction in London. These were discovered because they were from museum stores and were published in 1956.
The first questioner again asked Hanna if the authorities were involved. In response, she stated the Mubarak regime was certainly involved and that the Chief of Police for Cairo was arrested for running a smuggling ring. The questioner then pressed Hanna about any involvement by the current government. Hanna indicated that it was too soon to tell.
Another questioner asked about whether there was a “concerted international response” to looting. Hanna indicated it was essential to get the UN involved. There are markets in the US and the Gulf. If these markets were closed, the problem would be lessened. Over the long term there needs to be more investment in local communities in Egypt. The people must see that antiquities have a value to them. One reason they loot is that they think it’s their right to do so because corrupt government officials are doing it too.
Another questioner asked Hanna about the MOU with the United States. Hanna indicated that it is essential to close markets. She indicated that Egyptian authorities recently recovered 6,000 artifacts destined for a Swiss collector.
Another individual indicated he had a State Department contract with a company that planned to assist Egypt create a database of artifacts in State Museum stores. He wanted it to be known that two consecutive US Ambassadors had tried to get the Egyptian government to cooperate with the project, but the Mubarak Government stymied it.
Hanna indicated that governments need to be pressured to take a strong stance against illicit antiquities collecting. The last time this was successful was Iraq. In response to another question, Hanna indicated that she does not approve of private collecting. She indicated that private collectors should be satisfied with objects with a demonstrable provenance back to 1970 or 1983, the date of a clear Egyptian patrimony law. She does not think collectors should be able to “get away with” collecting unprovenanced artifacts. They are likely stolen. [CPO disagrees. Egyptian artifacts have been actively and legally collected since the 19th c. and Egypt itself has only had clear law vesting title in the State since 1983. Many Egyptian artifacts, particularly minor ones, have lost any information on how and where they were found over the years. CPO submits to assume they are “stolen” is both factually wrong and grossly unfair to law abiding collectors.]