The Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights and Egypt’s Heritage Task Force held a press conference on Thursday [19/9/2013] under the title of “Save Egypt’s Heritage for its Future,” to address violations against Egypt’s archaeological heritage and tampering with the state’s touristic capabilities. This was in light of the security void and the failure of state institutions in creating a plan for their protection, development, and utilization as one of the main sources of Egyptian national income.
The conference opened with a short video about the various violations committed by individuals and the thefts carried out by organized gangs, in light of the security void after the revolution in several areas, such as Dahshour and Abu Sir al-Malaq, which were breached, dug up, and robbed. The video also covered the attack on the Malwy Museum, considered the most important and biggest archaeological museum in Upper Egypt, and the resulting theft of 1,050 antiquities out of 1,080 present in the place.
Following the presentation, architect Omnia Abdulbarr spoke about “Utopia” . She spoke about an architect who proposed a project to King Fouad about the first ruins of the historical city, beginning with the city itself. In 1979, there was a campaign to register historical Cairo as a world heritage site in UNESCO. At the time, they did not mention the Islamic heritage, but used Cairo as a distinctive model and a traditional human society. That was in the 1980s, when there was still no low to protect heritage.
She continued by describing archaeological sites, which were destroyed and whose identity was erased. She gave the example of Ibn Tulun Mosque and the adjacent ancient buildings, characterised by their round carved latticework windows [Mashrabiya], which were demolished and the surrounding areas obliterated.
Of the images she displayed was one of a 12 storey building constructed right in front of the Imam al-Shafi’i Mausoleum, whose infrastructure and safety features were not suitable for such a building.
Another image was of an archaeological site whose windows were closed with red bricks by the state to prevent its looting.
Another example she gave were the arched gates of Egypt, most of which were destroyed due to negligence and lack of awareness of their value, such as the Egyptian Mufti Gate, built under King Fouad and later demolished by his granddaughter, without respect to this important Egyptian site.
She concluded by comparing between a hotel overlooking an archaeological area and one that does not have the same feature, explaining how such sites have a great impact on the prices. This confirms that Egypt’s heritage plays the major role in supporting Egypt’s economy. However, “what was demolished cannot return, since this takes away the memory and identity of the place, so protect what remains,” she called on the state and society.
Tourist guide Sally Suleiman spoke about the economic value of ruins and the expansion of the touristic area in Egypt.
She gave examples about important sites neglected by the state, such as al-Darb al-Ahmar area, which is much more relevant than al-Moez street, due to the abundance of antiquities. However, one of entrances has become a garbage dump and, more catastrophically, she is an eyewitness that the state is the one throwing the garbage.
She spoke about several other areas such as Bayt al-Razzaz palace, whose restoration cost around LE200 million, but was closed by the state and is not being used as a touristic stop.
Suleiman expressed her sadness when being asked by foreigners about the bathhouses of Cairo and Sugar Street, which they read about in novels by Naguib Mahfouz. These places were also turned into garbage dumps.
Then she moved to ancient palaces such as the Champollion Palace, which is not related to the famous Egyptologist, an example blurring the identity of a place, so that we forget its story and its value. It was sold to a businessman and the pictures showed how its condition has deteriorated.
There is also the Baron Palace, another famous site sold to a businessman to make him happy. Then the state hung a plate saying that it belonged to the Culture Ministry. However, all they did was plant grass on its grounds and connect some lights, but it was not renovated and is in the process of collapsing.
The Extent of Violations
Suleiman was followed by archaeologist Monica Hanna, who showed more pictures of violations in heritage areas, such as al-Matariyyah, historically known as “Iwnw.” It is famous for its two temples. However, four towers were built in place of the western gate of one of them. The state also desecrated the ruins of the area, constructing the new Thursday Market on the location. It is worth mentioning that contractors found an antique plate and handed it to officials, which is further indication of the complicity of the state and its neglect of that area.
Hanna spoke about several other areas, such as the Sphinx, Abu Sir, Deir al-Hawa Church, Sakkara Pyramid, Black Pyramid, and the wells of the middle state, which were all dug up without any archaeological survey or writing its history.
She also mentioned the Malwy Museum, which was looted for three days straight during the recent events and where the state and security were nowhere to be seen. She maintained that she contacted the security forces to save 55 pieces in the museum, but nobody replied to her requests.
Hanna indicated that the gangs are carrying out the looting and theft in a systematic manner, using children for exploration. The state had declared that 20 children were killed while being used in these operations, but believes the real number was higher by dozens of times. She concluded her statement, saying that “there is no security plan yet to protect Egypt’s heritage.”
This was followed by questions from journalists and the audience.
ECESR’s Malek Mustafa Media Spokesman indicated that “antiquities are being abused and theft and corruption permeate the ministry of antiquities.” Architect Abdulbarr called on the state to suspend the explorations and indicated that she will join in the filing a legal request to the council of ministers on that matter.
Tour guide Suleiman expressed her regrets, saying, “Where is the right of Egyptians to the antiquities that were handed to businessmen.” Then archaeologist Hanna added that “the business sector should not be involved in the question of antiquities before the corruption in the ministry is put to an end. The old regime built an emotional and material barrier between Egyptians and their country’s antiquities, which denied them knowledge of their value.”
The conference concluded with an announcement by the organizers that they will be filing a lawsuit against the Ministry of Antiquities to force it to protect the security of the antiquities and the remaining sites, in addition to the return of what was lost.
Another conference will be held on 24 October 2013 to follow-up on the state and authorities’ reaction to the requests.