Egypt’s Culture at Risk
Egypt is one of the most archaeologically rich countries in the world, with a recorded history dating back over 5,000 years. While looting of Egypt’s ancient sites has occurred for thousands of years, never have these attacks occurred in such a systematic and organized fashion as they are today. Since the 2011 Revolution, Egypt has been a victim of cultural racketeering – the systematic theft of art and antiquities by organized criminal syndicates for profit. Thieves are plundering Egypt’s history by robbing from its past and stealing from its economic future.
Criminals have been pillaging for profit, attacking Egypt’s museums, archaeological sites, storerooms, and religious institutions to gain access to the ancient artifacts they house, a hot commodity on the international market. These stolen historic items are smuggled out of their country of origin to “consolidation points” such as Israel, Switzerland, and Turkey, where they are then distributed through trafficking networks to countries where Egyptian antiquities are highly sought after. The great demand for these artifacts in market nations like the United States is contributing to the looting of our shared history.
Approximately 25 percent of Egypt’s history has been legally excavated over the past 200 years according to former Egyptian Minister of Antiquities Dr. Mohammed Ibrahim, yet significant treasures still lie beneath the sands: Satellite imagery research conducted by Dr. Sarah Parcak from the University of Alabama at Birmingham has identified: 17 new pyramids, 1,000 new tombs and 3,100 settlements, in all, thousands of new potential archaeological sites.
However, these ancient sites and relics are facing threats of wide spread pillaging by organized criminal groups. Illicit digging at previously known archaeological sites has – has increased by 500-1000% since the start of the January 2011 Revolution according to satellite analysis by Dr. Parcak conducted for the International Coalition to Protect Egyptian Antiquities (ICPEA), an initiative of the Antiquities Coalition.
Resulting financial losses from widespread cultural racketeering in Egypt are significant, accounting for an estimated $3 billion based on research conducted by Dr. Parcak. (Article publication forthcoming)
However, the financial losses are not confined to cultural heritage alone. Tourism, which makes up 11% of Egypt’s economy, has also been hit hard since the 2011 Revolution. Obviously, the uncertain political situation has had a significant impact on tourist revenues. In fact, following the ouster of former President Mohamed Morsi in 2013, Egypt lost more than $720 million USD in tourism income in a single month alone, with hotels in key heritage tourism areas such as Luxor and Aswan reporting only 15% occupancy during July and August of that year. But over 70% of tourists come from the United States and Europe, primarily to visit Egypt’s famous cultural heritage sites.
Egypt’s tourism economy has been on a decline since 2011, which has been especially distressing after the record-breaking tourist numbers in 2010. In 2013, Egypt had 2 million fewer tourists than in the previous year. Total revenues of tourist visits to museums and archaeological sites throughout Egypt declined to 6 million EGP ($871,002) in the fall of 2013, down from 111 million EGP from fall 2010 ($15,519,051). These numbers are relevant to the situation because the Ministry of Antiquities relies primarily on tourism revenues for its income. As a result of the dropping number of visitors to the sites, revenues from visits to archaeological sites dropped by 95% just as the Ministry is facing some of its biggest challenges to date in protecting Egypt’s cultural heritage.
These tremendous tourism losses have contributed to the worst economic crisis in Egypt since the Great Depression.
WHAT CAN BE DONE TO HELP?
One way to help is to contribute. Egypt is in desperate need of a National Registry of all excavated antiquities. In order to know what is lost, archaeologists and curators first must know what they have among the tens of thousands of items often found in their facilities. This National Registry will be a high profile, multiyear project to create a database of Egypt’s finest treasures. This is why the Antiquities Coalition has made the cultural heritage inventories project our priority project. But with so many amazing antiquities to register, a big project lies ahead, the Antiquities Coalition and Egypt need help, and that’s where you come in. Contact us directly at info@TheAntiquitiesCoalition.org to find out how you can contribute to help save our history.
Egypt is in need of many resources to help aid in the fight against cultural racketeering and the pillaging of our past. The International Coalition to Protect Egyptian Antiquities (ICPEA) – an initiative of the Antiquities Coalition – is led by the Capitol Archaeological Institute (CAI) at the George Washington University and includes the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA), American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR), and the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR). The ICPEA has outlined several innovative approaches to combat looting.
- Cultural Heritage Inventory/ National Registry of Artifacts: conducting the first nationwide inventory for all excavated antiquities- led by Egyptian archeologists and the Ministry of Antiquities. A digital database of the artifacts in Egypt’s storage facilities and museums is vital to the protection of cultural heritage protection, not only for effective collections management, but to also provide a catalogue of artifacts that can be referenced by security and customs officials as a preventative measure against illicit smuggling should a looting incident take place.
- Site Protection: training officials at the sites and supporting programs to better protect sites where necessary.
- Ancient Records Digitization: scanning ancient records to ensure records exist, especially if items are stolen.
- Aerial Mapping: conducting nationwide mapping of all key archeological sites to serve as a benchmark for tracking looting and urban encroachment.
- Cultural Heritage Education Campaigns: designing and implementing cultural heritage education programs around major archaeological sites.
- Small Business Initiatives: promoting the development of small businesses around tourist sites to create economic incentive for their protection.