February 13, 2014

Al Jazeera America

By Noreen Moustafa


The pyramids of Giza stand as stoic witnesses to Cairo, a city perpetually buzzing with traffic, bursting with almost 8 million residents, where political instability seems to be the new normal.

But the great relics are not without their scars. Having withstood the ravages of sand, time, sewage and air pollution for more than 4,000 years, the pyramids are in peril. In 1988 a 550-pound slab of limestone from the Sphinx’s right shoulder dropped to the ground — just one indication of how urbanization has negatively affected this historic site.

Over the past three years, chaos and political turmoil have engulfed Egypt. History will judge whether a true revolution actually took place over those 18 days in January 2011 that led to President Hosni Mubarak’s stepping down after 30 years in power.

One thing is certain: The barrier of fear was broken. But the resulting security vacuum has led to an increase in crime of every kind — and perhaps one of the most devastating is the unchecked looting of ancient sites and museums around the country. Opportunists pulled off one of the biggest museum thefts in the history of the country last summer, with more than a thousand artifacts stolen from the Malawi Museum in the city of Minya, about 200 miles from Cairo.

The resulting security vacuum has led to an increase in crime of every kind – and perhaps one of the most devastating is the unchecked looting of ancient sites and museums around the country.

The ancient sites scattered across the country are even harder to secure, especially in rural areas like Abu Sir al-Malaq, once an ancient Egyptian burial site and now home to lush green palm and banana groves. By some estimates, this area has been so terribly looted that only 30 percent of tombs’ contents remain.

Small items that can be easily transported out of the country go for the highest prices. Mummies are dug up, unwrapped and dismembered, all in the search for valuable amulets and antiquities that can be sold on the black market. The lure of profit — especially with the economic downturns in Egypt, Greece and Syria — has proved irresistible to too many. This underground global economy of illicit antiquities has been estimated to be a $2 billion per year industry.

At this time, the best the archaeological community can do is try to track and map the looting, mostly through crowdsourcing, as early as possible. There is little that can be done to prevent this kind of theft in Egypt under current circumstances, but as seen on “TechKnow,” DigitalGlobe’s high-resolution satellite imagery has created a “cost-effective, repeatable methodology” that, once analyzed, reveals looting patterns over time.

Using the infrared images captured by the company’s WorldView-2 satellite, an intrepid space archaeologist, Sarah Parcak of the University of Alabama at Birmingham, is able to reveal ruins in Egypt. She also found these images useful in the tracking of looted sites.

Satellite images of Egypt show clear holes where looters have dug into ancient burial sites.
Satellite images of Egypt show holes where looters have dug into ancient burial sites.
“I started hearing rumors of site looting in late January 2011 and got high-resolution imagery in mid-February,” she told Mashable. “I could see hundreds of looting pits, and that was at just one site. Now, nearly three years on, we’ve counted nearly 10,000 looting pits and seen a nearly 1,000 percent increase in total looting.”

She then hands over these images to the Supreme Council of Antiquities in Egypt to alert it to particularly insecure areas of the country. The hope is that as the Egyptian government stabilizes and security returns to the country, there will be a payoff to quantifying the looting. For the most part, arrests are typically made only after the stolen artifacts make it to the international market at auction houses like Christie’s and Sotheby’s.

As an Egyptian-American, I’m inspired by the teamwork and sharing of technology and information that is necessary to make a dent in the pandemic looting taking place, and I hope that security can be improved without the compromising of personal or civil liberties.

This is not only Egypt’s problem. We will all suffer if the rich history of Egypt’s ancient civilization disappears from our collective consciousness. And Americans should take great pride that some of our brightest minds are working so selflessly from thousands of miles away — even from space — in order to preserve the heritage of the human race.