Tales from the Egyptian revolution

My anger is initially directed at the looters and my thoughts keep returning to the same question: why are these criminals, who are Egyptians, looting their own history and their nation’s pride in order to sell it?

At the Second Pyramid of Khafra, employees work in the storage areas that were looted, as soldiers watch over from a tank on the plateau

Scrambling in the glaring sun we lifted heavy wooden boxes laden with antiquities to safer locations at the site where hopefully they would be easier to protect at night. The director had his sleeves rolled up and, covered in dust, was booming spontaneous orders. The entire, hurried operation was guided by the levelheaded and reasonable decisions of the high-ranking officials responsible for the site now acting as patriotic Egyptians struggling to protect their history.

Giza, home to the Great Pyramids, had two storage facilities broken into in the wave of attacks on antiquities overtaking Egypt during the revolution. As the news broke I rushed to the site (where I am based as an antiquities inspector) to offer my help. I was not alone: many other inspectors and other employees had left the safety of their homes with the same thoughts.

Egypt is riddled with archaeological sites and many remained virtually unscathed due to the inspectors and residents of the surrounding towns and villages endangering their lives to protect sites, storage locations and museums, as was the case at Beni Suef and Fayum.

Under normal circumstances the tourist police are responsible for guarding Egypt’s rich ancient history, from monasteries to temples, synagogues to mosques. But the police presence vanished in the revolution and has yet to return to the sites. The individual initiatives on the part of site inspectors and the townspeople from the remote areas is often the only current protection afforded to some of the world’s most unique and magnificent monuments.

We continue to work everyday on the makeshift salvage operation in Giza. Volunteers regularly turn up and, as we work, stories are exchanged about the looting where gangs of armed men attacked and shot the guards and plundered the site.

The work we are conducting is not only physically draining but also emotionally exhausting. My anger is initially directed at the looters and my thoughts keep returning to the same question: why are these criminals, who are Egyptians, looting their own history and their nation’s pride in order to sell it? Only if they stand to gain substantially would they go as far, feeding a market that is standing ready and prepared to amply reward them for their troubles; the better the object, the bigger the reward.

No indication of the market for antiquities is clearer than in the selection of the sites targeted by the looters in the past few months in Egypt. The overwhelming majority is Pharaonic, followed by Islamic, with Coptic and Jewish so far remaining untouched. We are struggling to protect our sites, facing armed men while we have nothing but sticks, because of a demand from personal collections (both inside and outside Egypt) and from rival institutions seeking a competitive edge.

We are paying the price for a greedy, insatiable and unregulated market.

The writer is an antiquities inspector based at Giza in Egypt

Sarah Marei
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28 Mar 11
19:2 CET


How do you know the looters are Egyptian? Do you have some information you can share with the rest of us? Culturally speaking I don't think Egyptian people would steel from themselves there's nothing to be gained by that, but I could totally see some outsiders taking advantage of the unrest to do such a crime and blame the locals to create a diversion.This is a basic formula of divide and conquer which some people are experts at doing as history tells us.

28 Mar 11
15:8 CET


Well done Sarah ! Archaeologists in Britain called for an immediate halt to sales of Egyptian antiquities in January, immediately after the first robbery at Cairo Museum, since it would be so easy for stolen items to be put up for sale before their loss could be documented in Egypt. The British Government Department of Culture refused to do anything about this, stating that current legislation was enough.

28 Mar 11
15:7 CET


Your justified outrage about the looting of Egyptian museums and archaeological sites ended with a big thud when you blamed collectors and "rival institutions seeking a competitive edge". The looting is the work of opportunistic thugs and hoodlums, probably willing to take small sums of money for important treasures, as they cannot be sold legitimately. To think that they are somehow tied in to the international art trade is ludicrous. And how are these rivals getting a competitive edge? No institutions would buy such material.

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