Antiquities and Archaeology Conservation Egypt

Controversial security walls help protect Egypt’s antiquities

Archaeological sites saved from rampant looting and encroachment

Two Coptic stone artefacts vanished from the Open Air Museum at Luxor Temple this month. Photo: Omar Shawki

As looting continues at archaeological sites across Egypt, controversial security walls built in Cairo before the 2011 revolution have helped to protect vulnerable sites. In recent months, the archaeological site of Deir el-Ballas, about 40km north of Luxor, has been damaged by looters and encroachment, reports Peter Lacovara, a senior curator at the Michael C. Carlos Museum in Atlanta who excavated the site in the 1980s and recently revisited the area.

Before the 2011 revolution, Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) initiated a programme of constructing concrete security walls around archaeological sites in an effort to define the areas and to protect them from unauthorised visitation, looting and development. The first of these was completed at Giza in 2008, to prevent a the neighbouring village and the cemeteries of Nazlet el-Samman from encroaching any further on the pyramid site, as well as to block illegal entry to vendors. Walls were also built at Abydos in Middle Egypt and around the palace site of Malkata in Luxor.

At the time, the walls’ construction drew criticism from local communities, especially from the villagers of Nazlet el-Samman who complained that the structures blocked not only their access to the site but also the much-needed income from tourists. Others complained that the walls damaged the sites’ aesthetic appeal.

In the face of rampant looting, however, the walls appear to have been successful. According to Lacovara, “the walls at Malkata, Giza and Abydos have generally stopped expropriation of land and minimised looting in contrast to similar sites without such protection,” adding that site inspectors at Deir el-Ballas hope to persuade the local governor to build a security wall around what remains of the site to help protect it from further damage.

Recent thefts

Two Coptic stone artefacts vanished from the Open Air Museum at Luxor Temple. The two objects, carved in the shape of lions or cats and dated to the Medieval period, had been secured to a platform by metal bands. One of the slots was found empty, while the other contained an inscribed block, put in the artefact’s place, apparently to make its disappearance less obvious.

The theft occurred between noon and 6pm on 10 April in an area patrolled by a single guard, though the museum as a whole is protected by police and temple guardians and surrounded by a chain fence. Local authorities are taking the theft seriously, and have reportedly questioned 140 people, according to the online magazine The Luxor Times.

The Open Air Museum, which opened in 2010, displays architectural fragments found during excavations around Luxor Temple over the past 50 years. When arranging the pieces for display, conservators discovered that many of them could be fitted together. This enabled the restoration of the temple’s lost walls, some of which were dismantled through the millennia by people in need of readily available building materials.

Meanwhile, in the Faiyum Oasis, police have arrested a gang attempting to sell a collection of 11 ancient artefacts, including three mummies and five mummy portraits dated to the Graeco-Roman period. According to Ahmed Abdel-Aal, the Faiyum's head of antiquities, the artefacts seem authentic, and are absent from official records, indicating that they were probably excavated illegally.

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Comments

1 May 14
15:48 CET

KIRSTY SHIRLAW, EDINBURGH

I think it is a great idea to protect the ancient monuments. They could also have CTV cameras as u came in the site.

1 May 14
15:50 CET

PETER LACOVARA, ALBANY

Even before the wall was constructed around the site of Malqata, areas were being destroyed by expanding houses, fields and trash dumps placed on antiquities land. Without that wall I'm sure the site would be destroyed now. If the locals really cared about the "heritage environment" they would respect the monuments, but sadly, many do not and this seems to be the only way to protect them.

30 Apr 14
20:0 CET

NAGUIB AMIN, PARIS

I have one of these walls passing in front of my house in Madinet Habu and along Malqata site. To begin with, it totally - like all others - difigur the landscape by its blunt concrete plain design and nature. Walling specifies protection only within the walled area, leaving buffer zone legally and security-wise unprotected. Needless to say that it totally separated the community from its heritage environment. It may be a rapid remedy, but inefficient treatment.

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