Grave robbing has thrived in Egypt from the days of the ancients. The tombs of royals and the elite were most at risk, since they contained great riches in the form of valuable funerary objects including gold jewellery and domestic objects inlaid with precious stones, alabaster and faience. Even the graves of the poor, however, were prey to robbery for the sake of the meagre offerings and adornments entombed with the deceased.
Despite the curse-invoking texts engraved on tomb walls, certain architectural steps taken to prevent theft, severe punishments and warnings that robbers would be judged by the gods in the afterlife, grave robbers continued to plunder tombs.
Robberies reached a peak in Roman times. Many ancient Egyptian monuments and other objects were smuggled from their original location to Europe, especially to Rome. Rome currently houses 15 ancient Egyptian obelisks. In the Middle Ages illicit trade in art and cultural artefacts flourished, partly because the Crusaders believed ancient Egyptian objects could cure disease. During the Renaissance, when the world witnessed a massive boom in art, the demand for antiquities increased to fill palaces all over Europe.
The Mamluke and Ottoman khedives did not recognise the priceless value of Egypt’s heritage, and readily sent some splendid monuments abroad in response to the interest shown by Europeans. To mention just a few, the first collection in the Vienna Museum was granted by Khedive Abbas I and Said Pasha to the Austrian prince Archidum Maximium, while the obelisk in the Place de la Concorde in Paris was given to the French King Louis Philippe by Mohamed Ali Pasha in return for the clock in the Citadel. The situation went from bad to worse, with the offering of Egyptian antiquities to foreign governments becoming a diplomatic trend.
Foreign excavation missions working in Egypt during that time were acting as antiquities traders. They succeeded in transporting many Egyptian artefacts to their own countries, creating a great ancient Egyptian collection in the Louvre, the British Museum and the Berlin Museum, among others. In addition, applying the division policy on newly- discovered artefacts was another legal opportunity for foreigners to obtain more ancient artefacts. National and international laws at that time approved the trading of antiquities, and one of the Egyptian Museum’s galleries was an auction hall where a monthly antiquities auction was held. After the completion of the Nubia temples salvage operation, the Egyptian government offered a large number of monuments to foreign countries in compensation of their efforts. The Dabur Temple, for example, was given to the Spanish government who reconstructed it on a hill in the Madrid Museum, while in 1974 the small Dendara Temple was given to the American president Richard Nixon. The Egyptian government continued to offer items of its heritage or sold them on the international market until Law 117/1983 was issued, prohibiting all such activities. According to this law, all antiquities in Egypt are the property of the state and their unlawful removal from the country subsequent to that date is theft.
It was different in the case of foreign countries which allowed the trade of antiquities. Hence the demand on ancient Egyptian antiquities has increased, and once again the illicit trade in art and cultural artefacts has increased dramatically, including the pillaging of archaeological sites and the illegal export of objects protected by international law by passing them off as replicas from the Khan Al-Khalili bazaar. Antiquities robbers succeeded in smuggling many ancient pieces in this way, but over the last decade Egypt’s efforts through diplomatic channels and in cooperation with museums around the world — which in some cases were offered as objects for sale, in others were approached for authentication — have resulted in the successful retrieval of several stolen antiquities.
The doors began to creak open for the antiquities flow back home almost 10 years ago, when a British high court convicted a British subject, Jonathan Tokeley-Parry, of smuggling Egyptian antiquities. The objects in question were returned to Egypt in two consignments. The first, which arrived two years ago, comprised 27 papyrus texts in the demotic script dating from 300 BC; 12 Coptic textiles; a sixth-dynasty limestone relief of a seated woman named Se-Chess-Hat; a terracotta statue of an unknown person; Graeco-Roman mummy masks; a magnificent bronze statue of the god Horus; an unidentifiable royal head in granite; coloured reliefs from ancient Egyptian tombs, and objects from the tomb of Hetep-Ka at Saqqara. The latter included two false doors, three heads of the nobleman wearing a wig, and a limestone relief showing a butcher at work. The objects are now on display in Cairo’s Egyptian Museum.
The second batch of retrieved objects arrived in Egypt in mid-2001, and included six papyri (one written in Latin and the other five in Greek), and a limestone head of Queen Nefertari, the beloved wife of Pharaoh Ramses II. What has also paved the way and gave support for Egypt’s continuous efforts to retrieve works of arts has been the recognition of Egypt’s antiquities law in American courts, after antiquities dealer Frederick Schultz was indicted on charges of breaking the Egyptian law. He was convicted in a federal district court in Lower Manhattan for conspiring to smuggle and possess looted Egyptian artefacts. The judge gave Schultz 33 months, the low end of the 33 to 41 months he was facing, and said he would request that Schultz be held at the federal facility in Allenwood, Pennsylvania, where white-collar criminals often do their time. Schultz was also fined $50,000 — a fraction of the $575,000 pre-sentencing recommendation — with the judge noting that for white collar crimes the real deterrence resided in jail time. Schultz, who has been ordered to return a relief to Egypt, will be on probation for two years following his release. Since the Schultz case, Egypt’s smuggled and stolen artefacts have continued to make their way back home.
When Zahi Hawass became secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) in 2002, he put the introduction of new security measures to combat the theft and smuggling of Egyptian antiquities high on his agenda. He updated security measures and started to catalogue all the artefacts stored in antiquities depots scattered across Egypt. He also built 33 high-tech storage units in the country, as well as constructing new national museums. He has provided further training for the staff who guard Egypt’s priceless artefacts. To this end, Hawass has formed the Department of Retrieving Stolen Artefacts, which comb the websites of international auction halls in an attempt to identify stolen pieces and demand their return. This later department has been effective over the last three years in having stolen artefacts returned to Egypt, such as statues from Karnak and other temples, two Roman masks and a beautiful relief of King Amenhotep III. At last, courts around the world are beginning to recognise the ownership claims of Egypt on their cultural property. Museums and customs officials all over the world are now repatriating artefacts to their rightful home. The Michael C Carlos Museum (MCCM) has offered Egypt the mummy of Pharaoh Ramses I, the grandfather of Egypt’s most famous pharaoh, Ramses II. The mummy is believed to have been looted from the Valley of the Kings in 1871 and sold to an antiquities dealer. The mummy of Ramses I is thought to have left Egypt in the hands of a Canadian antiquities collector, and at the beginning of the 20th century it turned up in Canada’s Niagara Falls Museum. The MCCM later purchased the entire Egyptian collection of the Niagara Falls Museum, including the mummy.
The recovery of a cache of 300 stolen objects from Switzerland was the result of a massive antiquities smuggling bust involving the former head of the National Democratic Party’s Giza office, Tarek El-Sweissi, along with 30 other people. The artefacts, which span the spectrum from the prehistoric to the Pharaonic, Hellenic and Graeco- Roman eras, included two mummies, several sarcophagi, as well as statues, mummy masks and other items.
Seven 2,500 year old artefacts at the centre of an alleged smuggling racket have also been handed over to Egypt by the Australian government. The artefacts were discovered in Melbourne after the Australian government agreed to a request from the Egyptian government to help in the global search for the items. The Egyptian government is currently prosecuting the alleged perpetrators, and the artefacts will be used as material evidence in the case. The seven objects include ushabtis (small funerary statuettes), a bronze axe head, a ceramic bowl and amulets.
Police have also succeeded in breaking up two major antiquities gangs. Other security measures have also been taken to tighten antiquities trafficking. A number of archaeological checking points have been established in every Egyptian port, and high-tech security systems have been installed in most archaeological sites. Nevertheless, Egypt’s heritage remains a fatal attraction for antiquity smugglers. Over the last couple of months the Egyptian Museum basement has been subjected to a theft case, which has forced the antiquities authorities responsible to make tougher new rules to combat the smuggling of antiquities.
A draft of a new antiquities law replacing the current one, Law 117/1983, is now awaiting the approval of the People’s Assembly after the coming legislative elections. According to Hawass: “The old law is no longer suitable because the penalties it imposes for the crimes of antiquity trafficking are not strong enough. We need more severe penalties in order to stop further trafficking.”
Ashraf Ashmawi, legal consultant in the SCA, told Al-Ahram Weekly that changes in the 1983 law focussed on five articles. The first was properly and legally to identify three main terms — the SCA’s permanent committee, the inviolable area around every monument, and the land found next door to the archaeological site — in an attempt to provide all necessary security measures and a healthy environmental atmosphere.
The second article to be repealed is the section of the law allowing possession of antiquities. A year after the approval of the law all owners of Egyptian antiquities must hand over all objects to the SCA, which in its turn will install them in their archaeological storehouses. Ashmawi continued that Article 7 of the old law stipulating that the police were the only department authorised to remove any encroachments on archaeological sites or monuments had been changed. Such responsibility is to be given to the SCA’s secretary-general, or to someone he entrusts, while the police agencies will only be a safeguarding agency while executing the secretary-general’s decision. Article 30 has been added to the law stipulating that the SCA is the only authority competent to carry out restoration and preservation work for all Egyptian monuments, archaeological sites and historical edifices. The minister of culture will have the authority to assign any scientific authority or mission to execute any such work, but under complete supervision of the SCA’s secretary-general.
As for penalties, according to Ashmawi all these have been doubled or tripled. A smuggler who was sentenced to 15 years and fined LE50,000 would now be sentenced to life imprisonment and fined from LE100,000 to 500,000. Anyone who steals, hides, or collects authentic artefacts, or owns them without permission, will be imprisoned for 25 years and fined from LE50,000 to 250,000 instead of three years hard labour and a LE100 fine. According to the new law, stealing or helping in robbing a part of a genuine piece or intent deliberately to disfigure it will land a sentence of 15 years and a fine of from LE50,000 to 100,000.
“The new law does not omit penalties for those who write their names or fix advertising billboards on monument walls,” Ashmawi said. He said such actions would be considered a violation of Egyptian heritage, and the penalty would range from six to 12 months or a fine of LE150,000.
The new law allows clemency for anyone who confesses to or divulges information about an antiquities crime in condition that his or her confession leads to the arrest of partners in the theft or smuggling. The SCA will assign experts to check the authenticity of any confiscated objects in an attempt to guarantee an honest and accurate decision.