By Kate Phizackerley and Andrea Byrnes. Published on Egyptological, June 30th 2011, Magazine Edition 1.
In the last week of March 2011 an UNESCO team visited Egypt to meet with the new Minister of Culture and try to understand the state of the country’s antiquities following widespread reports of vandalism, theft and looting. Egypt has seven World Heritage Sites: six cultural heritage sites and the fossilized mangroves of the Faiyum’s Whale Valley. The north Egyptian Pyramid Field, which stretches from the Great Pyramid at Giza across the desert to Dashur in the west and Abusir in the south, and includes the elite necropolis of Saqqara, is one of the world’s foremost historical sites. The Great Pyramid is the last of the Seven Wonders of the World to survive.
It is an indication of how seriously heritage care deteriorated following the Egyptian crisis that at Abusir alone 200 robber pits were dug, unchallenged by police or other authorities and armed looters were easily able to disperse the unarmed guards at Saqqara. Antiquities stores at Giza were raided in the shadow of the Great Pyramid itself. In Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the focal point for the protestors, the magnificent collection of the Egyptian Museum was looted and over 60 important artefacts stolen, including treasures from the iconic tomb of Tutankhamun. By the evening of the same day, the ruling NDP party headquarters next door to the Egyptian Museum was on fire, placing the museum and its collections under immediate threat until the fire was eventually extinguished some days later. Over the next few days protests raged around the Egyptian Museum and turned violent, and on 2nd February pro-Mubarak supporters were filmed by the BBC throwing petrol bombs into the Museum grounds. Even historic Islamic and Coptic sites failed to escape attention from looters. Not since the Nubian lands were drowned by the Aswan Dam in the 1960s has Egyptian heritage been at such risk.
When Lake Nasser threatened to flood Nubian temples like Abu Simbel and Philae during the construction of the Aswan High Dam, international experts led by UNESCO joined forces with Egypt to remove the most important sites from danger. The latest crisis has been very different. Protests began on the 28th January 2011 and from the start, offers of outside assistance were rejected. Egypt’s leadership, anxious to play down the serious nature of the protests, preferred to underplay reports of threats to its heritage. The few statements released were politicised and received with understandable suspicion. Initially the Egyptological community looked to the influx of foreign television journalists for information about museums and sites, but drew a blank there too. Insights from the Egyptian public were blocked at the start of the January revolution when the Mubarak regime quickly took steps to bar Egyptian access to the Internet and mobile phone networks, reducing communication still further.
In the face of increasingly worrying rumours about the state of Egyptian museums and archaeological sites, reliable news about the unfolding crisis and its impacts were of critical importance but the difficulties involved in obtaining such information were considerable. These difficulties were addressed spontaneously by an informal community of long-standing Egyptology bloggers, all of whom had the knowledge and experience to pick up and run with the small fragments of news emerging from both formal and informal sources.
In the first part of this article we discuss the challenge of delving into the heart of the matters unfolding at the museums, monuments and archaeological sites of Egypt, and the obstacles to providing objective reports on the situation in the face of considerable confusion, conflicting accounts and the absence of relevant media coverage.
News or Hearsay?
Pulling together fragmentary information, bloggers reported that on the 28th January, in a coordinated move across Egypt, the police guarding Egypt’s ancient temples, tombs and museums were withdrawn. We still do not know the motivation for the decision. Some observers believed the Government wanted Egypt’s cultural sites to be looted to fuel Western fears of the risk from Islamists, drawing on the terrible memories of the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas blown up by the Afghan Taleban. Others suggested that it was an attempt to discredit the police. In either scenario monuments were now unprotected. The Mubarak Government had put Egypt’s antiquities on the front line of the revolution. Egyptological reportage was unaccustomed to a highly dynamic environment. It seemed unable to meet the challenges presented by the fast-evolving crisis. The situation was grave; the need for reliable and speedy news was critical, but never had it been so difficult to provide the information that the community needed.
From the first days of the protest, it seemed rational to assume that opportunists would use the legitimate political gatherings as an excuse to profit from a certain amount of confusion, a pattern familiar from other countries in crisis. We worked together to monitor the situation, working in 12 hour shifts to assess the information coming out of Egypt about museums and sites. The fear that Egyptian antiquities were at considerable risk became obvious on the 29th January by early reports of an overnight break-in at Cairo’s Egyptian Museum. These were reinforced by video footage on Al Jazeera television of smashed cabinets and broken artefacts. An official statement issued by fax from the then-head of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, Dr. Zahi Hawass, the next day discounted substantial damage in the Cairo Museum. In that statement and in subsequent television interviews media-savvy Hawass reported that damage had been minimal, and that no items had been stolen. The statement was wrong.
It fell to bloggers to analyse and communicate the realities of the situation. Within hours Margaret Maitland, a doctoral student of Egyptology at Oxford University, had used her long-standing Eloquent Peasant blog to communicate her assessment of the available evidence. She identified that statues shown in fragments on the floor included priceless statues from the Valley of the Kings tomb of Tutankhamun, which have wowed visitors from all over the world. Indeed, if many of Tutankhamun’s treasures had not been overseas in a touring exhibition, the loss could have been far worse. Members of the Egyptian public, who witnessed attempted break-ins on the 28th formed a human cordon and were able to prevent further incursions until the military arrived to protect the museum. It was an early sign that looting might be a serious problem not just at museums and their storage buildings but at far more accessible open sites and monuments, and that the concerned public would need to help out where possible.
On the 31st January the news of Mubarak’s cabinet reshuffle came in, together with the announcement that Zahi Hawass had been appointed to the position of Minister of a new Antiquities department, now separated out from the Ministry of Culture. This put Hawass at the front line of heritage management and gave him absolute responsibility for the prevention of harm to Egypt’s sites. Now even closer to the government machine, Hawass continued to issue statements that denied serious trouble at most sites in northern Egypt and elsewhere. Whilst it is possible that the Ministry of Antiquities was as much in the dark as the rest of us about some areas of Egypt, there was a widely shared suspicion that they were continuing to conceal embarrassing information. The reassuring official messages did anything but reassure.
Another of the problems experienced by bloggers and other reporters was the sheer volume of unverifiable information on the web. Unfortunately where information is lacking people will try to fill the void as best they can with whatever information comes their way. This sabotaged all attempts to provide clear information about the situation for readers in search of reliable reports. The need to sift through unconfirmed remarks about sites, spread over a number of social networking sites, added to the difficulties and frustration. This tidal wave of speculation came mainly from concerned parties outside Egypt. Discussions were rampant on Facebook, Twitter and blogs, with new Facebook pages springing up to encourage the exchange of information.
In response to one rumour on Twitter that a museum in Alexandria was in flames, people began to wonder if this was a repeat of the fire two thousand years ago that destroyed the Great Library of Alexandria, another of the Seven Wonders, a fearsome prospect. The story turned out to be one of the many fictional accounts of damage which made reporting so difficult.
Even firsthand accounts from both Egyptian and foreign witnesses were a problem, owing to their desire to remain anonymous. Anonymous sources cannot be verified at a distance.
By the 31st January, the Egyptian government had attempted to take control of propagation of news within and emanating out of Egypt by blocking Noor, the last Internet Service Provider still allowed to operate, barring mobile phone networks, forbidding train travel between cities, and closing down the excellent Al Jazeera press office in Cairo. Rumours from Saqqara, Abusir, Giza and the Egyptian Museum were becoming particularly disturbing.
Outside Egypt, the families and friends of archaeologists and tourists still in Egypt were unable to email or telephone them. In and amongst reporting the cultural crisis, blogs and message boards began to carry personal messages asking for news of individuals who could not be contacted and reporting about those who had arrived safely home. Gradually some reports came in from archaeologists who had cut short their season’s work to return home, making it possible to confirm that archaeologists remaining in Egypt or returning home were safe and well. Stories about the fate of sites were not so reassuring and far harder to verify.
Heritage, one of the main reasons that Westerners visit Egypt, continued to be largely ignored by the BBC, CNN and Sky reporters, although German TV and radio carried several reports. It is surprising that the antiquities of Egypt received so little coverage. It was almost impossible to obtain news about major centres like Port Said, Luxor and Aswan, never mind areas like the Faiyum, the Delta, Middle Egypt and the Red Sea coast. Even Alexandria was something of a media void beyond the immediate heart of the protests
Following the resumption of Internet services on 2nd February and mobile phone services three days later, a few residents were once again able to use the Internet to provide updates about the local situation where they were based. Jane Akshar in Luxor was able to report, on her Luxor News blog, that protests had been disciplined and peaceful and that the town was very quiet with minimal threats to antiquities. But these welcome local reports were few and far between.
Secure or looted?
Although it was reported that certain sites were protected by the military it seemed as though many vast and well known sites were now completely unguarded by any official presence. Even where the military were now in position at Giza and the Egyptian Museum, their presence came only after looters had gained access to both.
At the site of the Great Pyramid archaeologists who had fled the site for their own safety reported that it had been attacked by an armed gang. Although eye-witnesses confirmed that the military had taken over the protection of the Giza plateau, site of the Great Pyramids and the Sphinx, and the site re-opened, there was still scant official confirmation of the damage inflicted upon the unique Giza site. All that emerged were vague reports that one tomb, that of chief royal architect Impy, was entered and robbed, and that vandals had tried to destroy and rob other buildings and tombs but reportedly were unsuccessful.
Hawass continued to issue statements reporting that no damage had been inflicted upon the sprawling Saqqara necropolis near Cairo, but doubts were now rife because reliable sources were suggesting that Saqqara was anything but secure. Some news sources suggested that either the tomb of Maia (the Wet Nurse of Tutankhamun) or the tomb of Maya (the Treasurer of Tutankhamun) had been smashed and looted of its reliefs. Reports were unclear about which of the tombs was targeted, but both beautifully decorated and historically important sites were of serious concern. It was also reported that fires had been started in the vast underground complex of the Serapeum where the mummies of huge Apis Bulls were entombed. National Geographic, where Hawass is an “explorer in residence” was allowed to send a reporter to Saqqara, but he seemed to be unfamiliar with the site. The report, undoubtedly honest and well intentioned, did not provide much reassurance to those who looked for photographs and detailed reports from archaeologists with intimate knowledge of Saqqara. Despite the reports that either the tomb of Maia or Maya had been devastated he did not enter either tomb and was encouraged by public pressure to return a couple of days later to be filmed within the tomb of Maya.
Similar concerns had been frequently expressed over the fate of Abusir, which official statements, in tones of increasing impatience, continued to claim was quite safe. It has since been found, of course, that hundreds of illegal treasure-hunting trenches and pits were dug across the vast site. The director of the Czech excavations of the site, Miroslav Barta, has since confirmed in an article in České Noviny that storage buildings were broken into and invaluable items either removed or destroyed. Barta mourns the loss of these ancient artefacts, fearing that they may never be returned or found.
Blogging the Truth
In an attempt to build a reliable picture of the heritage crisis, Kate Phizackerley built the online Egyptological Looting Database 2011 which was designed to compile, indeed crowd-source, reports from across Egypt. Already reporting on heritage related stories emerging from Egypt on her News from the Valley of the Kings blog, Kate was horrified by the jumble of fact and fiction being touted, and was concerned about how the dilution of facts would impact the future of antiquities, which were increasingly vulnerable to smuggling. In the space of a day she had created an invaluable resource. Widely publicized by both bloggers and the print media, the Looting Database immediately attracted dozens of well informed contributors, together with offers of assistance from volunteers. By retaining the historic entries made throughout its evolution, the Database charts a picture of the chaotic and contradictory reports from Egypt at that time, and continues to provide the best public site-by-site view of the loss of heritage. The Database records its sources so that it can be independently checked and future users can refer back to the original articles. It also provides a vivid insight into the degree to which the official statements from the Ministry of Antiquities completely failed to provide transparent information.
We continued to work twelve hour shifts. Working on our separate blogs, we exchanged information constantly, helping each other to verify stories, cutting down on duplicated efforts and improving the quality of information that we communicated to our readers. When English sources dried up, we turned to those in French, Spanish and German, and even languages which neither of us claim to be able to read. It was of immediate importance that we translate stories ourselves in order to assess which were important and needed a full translation, and which could be discarded. Without online translation tools this would not have been possible, but an added difficulty with using unfamiliar foreign sources was in determining which of them were reliable. In that sort of situation second sourcing is both crucial and high risk, involving numerous judgment calls. Whilst we believe that most of our assessments were correct, occasionally and perhaps inevitably mistakes were made. Kate Phizackerley carried a news item on her News from the Valley of the Kings blog suggesting that the museum at Kharga in the remote Western Desert had been raided. This turned out to be untrue. It emerged that the original Arabic sources had expressed fears that the museum was at imminent risk from a gang in town, a risk which seems to have been averted, perhaps as a result of the online hue and cry.
All Egyptology bloggers were busy, each covering a different aspect of the crisis. Andrea Byrnes continued to report on any heritage-related news on her Egyptology News blog maintaining an hour by hour update service, which included first hand reports made on Aayko Emya’s Egyptologists Electronic Forum. Andrea also reported on statements from a variety of organisations about the need to guard against the smuggling of stolen items, emphasising how the international community were pulling together outside Egypt. Margaret Maitland ran an ongoing editorial assessing the situation in Egypt and providing up to date commentaries about the significance of various reports and events. Vincent Brown used his Talking Pyramids blog to emphasise and explore certain aspects of the situation that had been underplayed by other online resources. Paul Barford’s wide-ranging Portable Antiquity Collecting and Heritage Issues blog also joined in the fray to help to separate fact from fiction. He was one of the first visitors to the re-opened Cairo Museum and offered insightful speculation about the January raid. Most of us had a considerable amount of assistance from a wide number of professionals and amateurs, all of whom provided reliable breaking news throughout the crisis.
Readers online gradually began to adapt to the new situation and were becoming sceptical of reports on some Facebook pages and blogs with unsourced content. They wanted to understand the reliability of the information, questioning where stories came from and asking where the proof for certain statements was to be found. Traffic increased substantially to established blogs that have reputations for authoritative and objective reporting.
With Egypt normalising, and communications networks restored to normal service, blogs like Luxor News and the Luxor Times Magazine were able to report news again and re-established their importance as a source of local stories.
It may have come as a surprise to Egypt that so many people were so anxious about her heritage. Dr Christina Riggs came very close to suggesting, in her article “We’ve been here before” (The Times Higher Education, 24th February 2011), that the Western interest in the heritage of Egypt was somewhat hypocritical given our passion in previous centuries for collecting its beautiful objects to fill our own museums and private collections. Whilst the subject of repatriation continues to cause friction between Egypt and other countries, Western interference in Egypt’s affairs has nevertheless given us something of a cultural affinity with Egypt and her past. Certainly, a number of Western individuals and organizations attempted to stand shoulder to shoulder with Egypt during this crisis and to take steps to implement measures to assist with the tasks of assessing the current status of sites and museums and ensuring that looted antiquities do not enter Western antiquities markets.
A number of important organizations and institutions joined the call for diligence about watching for antiquities entering the international market, amongst them the Egypt Cultural Heritage Organization, the International Council of Museums (ICOM), the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, and Blue Shield. Others took active steps to assist: a new UNESCO visit, in which ICOM participated, work by the University of Pennsylvania to circulate details of a “red list” of looted items and of course Kate Phizackerley’s Egyptological Looting Database. Many other individuals and organisations assisted in less visible but important ways.
Throughout the crisis, Blue Shield and the ICOM Disaster Relief Task Force were prominent among the most active authorities, and quickly established an emergency assessment mission. A two man team of cultural experts landed in Cairo. The team published independent first-hand reports from sites in the vicinity of Cairo. They were able to disprove the reports that the open air Museum at Memphis had been raided, but confirmed damage at Abusir, Dashur and Saqqara. Perhaps because of the transparency brought by this mission, official statements emerging from Egypt began to tally increasingly with the unofficial reports. Dr Hawass, as Minister for Antiquities, retracted or clarified several earlier statements: items had been stolen from the Egyptian Museum during the break-in and when he said the Museum was safe he had only meant the mask of Tutankhamun; tombs at Saqqara had been looted by local people; and audits would take place to evaluate the situation.
On the 2nd February 2011 Zahi Hawass, Minister for Antiquities, had remarked in an official statement “I would like UNESCO and the people around the world not to worry because the sites of Egypt are safe”. It is depressing to reflect upon this statement with the benefits of hindsight.
The rigidly formal and incomplete communication favoured by the former State machine encouraged anxious people to speculate about the truth beneath the would-be reassuring nonsense of official statements. Had the facts of losses and vandalism been presented up front and the offers of sympathy, support and constructive assistance been acted upon, Egypt’s heritage might not have suffered so thoroughly. As we have discussed, it is possible that the hierarchical State media media was simply overwhelmed by the vast array of reports coming in from across Egypt, but for whatever reason, official reports were slow and continued to be incomplete, creating a climate of suspicion and mistrust. This, together with the lack of international media interest in Egypt’s heritage in crisis, led to an ocean of rumour and hearsay on the Internet, particularly by social networkers who published unattributed information. The anonymity of genuine first hand observers did not help. Between them they made the task of unravelling the state of Egypt’s heritage a challenging task. It was a challenge that was met most successfully by a small community of specialist bloggers who were able to use their connections, insights and skills to develop a sound and authoritative network of information provision.
One of the primary goals for Egypt following the revolution and the establishment of an interim government has been to secure her heritage and to attempt to ensure the return of items looted from sites and museums. A secondary challenge has been to restore international confidence in information communicated by Egypt’s state.
In the second part of this article we will look at the events that followed the Egyptian revolution, the changes that have occurred, the cooperation between the newly established Ministry of Antiquities Affairs and international organizations and the future of heritage management in Egypt.
Blogs referred to in this article
Akshar, J. Luxor News
Brown, V. Talking Pyramids
Byrnes, A. Egyptology News
Maitland, M. The Eloquent Peasant
Barford, P. Portable Antiquities and Heritage Issues
Phizackerley, K. News from the Valley of the Kings