Reports of Looting and Theft throughout Egypt

An Egyptian Soldier guarding the Cairo Museum

Like many of you I am following the reports from Egypt with great interest. There is a flood of information on the revolution generally, and also a lot of specific information about the destruction over the weekend at the Cairo Museum.

The situation at the Egyptian National Museum in Cairo seems to have stabilized, with soldiers arresting fifty men who have attempted to break in to the museum Monday. Yesterday Zahi Hawass faxed a report, which was posted on his blog.

 Now reports are emerging about damage and thefts at sites elsewhere in the country. Much of it, I am sorry to say, is disheartening. These reports are very early, and should be taken with a healthy dash of skepticism. Yet we all know that there are places where many of these objects will be bought and sold. The antiquities trade does not distinguish the licit from the illicit. Vast storehouses and sites are at risk. The United States will soon have to consider emergency import restrictions, and monitor the trade as best we can. Yet one can’t help but feel frustrated at the destruction which may be taking place.

The Egyptian newsblog Bikyamasr is reporting widespread looting of museums and antiquities thefts all over the country:

According to antiquities official Mohamed Megahed, “immense damages to Abusir and Saqqara” were reported. Looters allegedly have gone into tombs that had been sealed and destroyed much of the tombs and took artifacts.

“Only the Imhotep Museum and adjacent central areas were protected by the military. In Abusir, all tombs were opened; large gangs digging day and night,” he said.

According to Megahed, storage facilities in South Saqqara, just south of Cairo has also been looted. He did mention it was hard to ascertain what, and how much, was taken.

He said Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) officials “are only today [Sunday] able to check on the museums storage, but early reports suggest major looting.”

He called on the international archaeology community to issue a “high alert” statement on Old Kingdom remains and Egyptian antiquities in general, “and please spread the word to law enforcement officials worldwide.”

Looters of museums, “who may be encouraged by outside Egypt entities, may try to use general confusion to get things out of the country.”

His statement comes as Al Jazeera and other news networks reported extensively on the small looting at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo in the past two days as police guarding the museum left their posts. Others allege that the police themselves are responsible for the looting.

The Egyptian Museum is home to some 120,000 items and thousands more in storage in the basement.

 What a sad development if museum security really were involved in the looting. Already it is worth asking the difficult question: what could be done to prevent this in the future, and also thinking about answers. One answer might lie with how the guards were treated. Hyperallergic has translated an interview with the former director of the Egyptian Museum Wafaa el-Saddik, published in the German publication Zeit Online, reporting that the Museum in Memphis has been robbed. The thieves may have been Egyptian security guards, who earn as little as 35 Euros per month.

Good sources of information include:

After the jump, a collection of videos of the situation in Cairo (via)

Al Jazeera report of Friday’s looting at the Cairo Museum on Friday:

AP video of the army securing the museum:

Zahi Hawass commenting on Saturday:

(cross-posted)

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Hawass says Egyptian Museum "Raided"

Zahi Hawass claimed that two mummies have been destroyed, and the museum was “raided”, in an appearance on Egyptian state television:

CAIRO Jan 29 (Reuters) – Looters broke into the Egyptian Museum during anti-government protests late on Friday and destroyed two Pharaonic mummies, Egypt’s top archaeologist told state television.

The museum in central Cairo, which has the world’s biggest collection of Pharaonic antiquities, is adjacent to the headquarters of the ruling National Democratic Party that protesters had earlier set ablaze. Flames were seen still pouring out of the party headquarters early on Saturday.

“I felt deeply sorry today when I came this morning to the Egyptian Museum and found that some had tried to raid the museum by force last night,” Zahi Hawass, chairman of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, said on Saturday.

“Egyptian citizens tried to prevent them and were joined by the tourism police, but some (looters) managed to enter from above and they destroyed two of the mummies,” he said.

He added looters had also ransacked the ticket office.

The two-storey museum, built in 1902, houses tens of thousands of objects in its galleries and storerooms, including most of the King Tutankhamen collection. (Reporting by Yasmine Saleh, Writing by Patrick Werr)

Looters destroy mummies in Egyptian Museum-official | News by Country | Reuters

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Army Protecting Museum in Egypt according to state TV

Army units secured the Egyptian Museum in central Cairo against possible looting on Friday, protecting a building with spectacular pharaonic treasures such as the death mask of the boy king Tutankhamun, state TV said.

The news follows a day of violent anti-government protests in Cairo and other cities. Some of the most violent scenes in four days of protests have been in squares and streets close to the museum building.

It was also broadcast as reports of looting of some government buildings emerged. One Reuters photographer said looters had broken into a ruling party building near the museum and were walking out with furniture, computers and other items.

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What about the Museums?

Associated Press video from Cairo:
Protests have erupted across Egypt, with demonstrators demanding an end to the rule of Hosni Mubarak. Reports show a breakdown in order, and fires, and reports of looting. 
Who is watching the museums? 
Please contact me (derek.fincham@gmail.com) if you are aware of any reports of heritage looting.
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Footnotes

Is art in America in bad shape? Stephen Colbert probably says no.
Here’s the New  York Times’ video of damage and restoration at Babylon:

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More on Cleopatra’s Needle in Central Park

Cleopatra’s Needle in Central Park

Abbie Swanson of WNYC has a good update on the merits of the criticism leveled by Zahi Hawass of the treatment of ‘Cleopatra’s Needle’ in Central Park. I have a short appearance in the story, but the real interesting reporting comes from her interview of Will Raynolds, who wrote his Masters Thesis on the monument:

Raynolds said that in its first four years in New York, large sheaths of granite came loose from the surface of Cleopatra’s Needle. An additional 780 pounds of stone were lost when a waterproofing company tried to stop the decay with a creosote and paraffin treatment in 1884. But the last major study of the monument, conducted by the Metropolitan Museum in 1983, found that the rate of decay had stabilized. The Parks Department says now there is no significant ongoing erosion on the obelisk.

“And yet, you know there are still signs that there’s some gradual erosion occurring on the surface,” Raynolds said, adding that you can see patches of decay where the obelisk’s native pink color appears on the surface of the stone.

So the monument is eroding, but the very eroded sections were done initially when the monument was first in New York. Mark Durney did some searching of the New York Times archives and found something similar:

[I]in May 1914, the Central Park commissioner with the help of Columbia University’s James Kemp and the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s William Kuckro began extensive restorative work on the obelisk during which they removed a paraffin layer, which was added soon after the obelisk’s erection, and they added a new waterproof coating. At this time the obelisk’s condition was described as “scaling on all sides,” and, “in some sections the shaft was blank for several feet.” The NYTimes’ description from 1914 appears to appropriately describe the damage, or deterioration, similar to that which is depicted in photographs on Hawass’s blog.

So it certainly would not hurt to continue to study the conditions in New York, and the steps which can be taken to minimize damage, but my initial guess was correct. Zahi Hawass was making unfounded allegations to continue to press for the repatriation of objects. He may have a good claim for a number of objects, but that argument loses its steam when you make the same urgent calls for every object which originated in Egypt, irrespective of the circumstances surrounding its removal. Many of these individual objects carry unique circumstances, and all sides in these contentious arguments would be well-served to avoid premature or overly critical concerns.

WNYC Audio:

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Superindictments and their Consequences

Yesterday there was a series of over 120 arrests of alleged mafia members. Though it is not quite on the same scale, it bears at least a few similarities to the indictments handed down in the Southwest as a part of  operation ‘cerberus’, or even the searches of California Museums in early 2007. Christopher Beam writes that these large investigations are ‘superindictments’:

Why one huge arrest, rather than a bunch of smaller ones? “It’s a statement,” says Jim Wedick, a former FBI agent. “They wanted to say, ‘You know what? We are back in town.’ ” Since 2001, the FBI has shifted its resources away from traditional crime-fighting toward counterterrorism. Thursday’s bust is a message from the Department of Justice to organized crime: We haven’t forgotten about you.

A message certainly was sent yesterday. By using this large-scale investigation Beam writes that you can encourage individuals to cooperate, informants are almost assured if you arrest a large enough group, and a powerful message is sent. Yet the events in the wake of the Cerberus investigation are sobering. Do law enforcement officials need to weigh the severity of their actions? Or do individuals who break the law earn the hardships which can sometimes emerge.

Cerberus was the frightening three-headed dog that guarded the underworld. The beast prevented souls from crossing into or out of the Hades’ dominion. A sad irony then that three suicides emerged from the investigation. The undercover informant who set much of the investigation into motion, and two of the individuals indicted. Antiquities looters have almost certainly changed their behavior. Whether the investigation drove them further underground or caused them to cease the looting remains to be seen. One hopes they have ceased looting of sites, but until the demand for black market antiquities is erased, there will sadly be people willing to risk arrest. Investigators worked very hard to make this case, and agents work tirelessly to police these sites, yet until the demand is eliminated, will these investigations continue?

  1. Christopher Beam, FBI Mafia Arrests: The rise of the superindictment. Slate (2011), http://www.slate.com/id/2281894/?from=rss (last visited Jan 21, 2011).
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