Egypt: Historical Turn-Of-The-Century Graves In Egypt Vulnerable To Antiquity Theft, Egypt Antiquity News

Historical Turn-Of-The Century Graves In Egypt

Vulnerable to Antiquity Theft

By Amargi Hillier

(Cairo) Throughout Cairo and Egypt there are a vast array of graveyards and modern religious antiquities dating back to the last century. Because of the age of these cemeteries and artifacts, they should be deemed as antiquities under the auspices of the Ministry of Culture. However, because they are modern religious items, they are categorized under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Religious Endowments.

The problem existing with these historical graves is that they are not considered as antiquities by the Ministry of Religious Endowment. Therefore, graves have been looted but the law cannot charge the thieves as stealing antiquities. Rather general theft or vandalism charges apply.

This situation was recently brought to light when a faithful guardian of one cemetery refused to accept a 1,750,000 LE bribe to enable thieves to steal an old covering of the Kabba. Antiquities such as the Kabba coverings (the black cloth put over the Kabba stone in Saudi Arabia) fall under the Ministry of Religious Endowments, and protection (security) of these items are less strict as compared to regular antiquities. Also historical antiquities under the Ministry of Religious Endowments do not get the strict cataloguing and documentation that regular antiquities (such as Pharaonic) receives.

Wealthy Arabs blackmarketeers often trade in this brand of antiquity theft. They roam Egypt in search for such graves where they can find their merchandise. These merchants know that such precious items are not recorded as antiquities by the Ministry of Culture and can freely trade in them, so to speak. They buy these items as 'old antiques' and resell them as 'precious antiquities'.

Mr. Ahmad Hasan, Inspector of Religious Sepulchers, said that in 1991 he made a request to the Ministry of Religious Endowments to set armed guards at Keddewis Tomb. The tomb contained many historical items. There was no response from the Ministry to this request. Four years later in 1995 the tomb was looted. Luckily, the stolen antiquities were returned before being resold in the black-market.

Mr. Nabil El-Behary, Head of Antiquities in the Imam El-Shafiey, stated that there are a lot of joint monuments between the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Religious Endowments. Healso stated that he requested that the antiquities in Mohammed Alis Tomb should be added to those in the Islamic Museum. He added that it is a must that these sites be guarded by the police, even if they are not recorded as historical monuments.

The Ministry of Religious Endowments states that they have no objection to handing over monuments to the Ministry of Culture. However, there is one obstacle. The Ministry of Religious Endowments has decided to hand over the monuments as 'building structures' only. Whatever antiquities inside these monuments should remain a consignment in the Ministry of Culture or the Supreme Council of Antiquities. This loose system often results in difficulties in getting the artifacts properly categorized and protected.

This problem of disagreement between the Ministries has caused the loss of many antiquities, for example Wekalet El-Basha in Rashid and the Wekalet El-Haramen. It is not appropriate to record the newer buildings as antiquities, for example the Parliament House and El-Azhar Sheikdom, and leave the tombs of a Royal Family unrecorded. As long as these monuments are not recorded, they can easily be utilized as illegal-legal merchandise. Another problem lies in the planning of buildings in the areas where these monuments are located. Mr. Mohammed Abu El-Amayem, former Head of Projects in the Center of Antiquities Research, has the opinion that the lack of housing plans for the old areas is the main cause that such historical tombs are raided. For example, the Tomb of Afandina was partially removed so as to build the Autostrad Road. Haphazard buildings started to emerge in the area. The tomb was vulnerable to theft as it was with an area of haphazard buildings and poor living standards.

Dr Hamdy Zakaook, Minister of Religious Endowments, said that thereare constant problems of cooperation between the Ministry of Religious Endowments and the Ministry of Culture that cause problems with preserving the modern Islamic antiquities. Proof of that is the recent handing over of the Islamic covering of the Holy Kabba to the Ministry of Culture. He says, 'Both ministries are trying to cooperate and coordinate with each other for one goal; to preserve the old antiquities of Egypt, which are considered priceless.'

A small summation of the stolen antiquities from the Tomb of Kedewi Tawfek amounts to 63,000,000 LE. As for the Mohammed Saeed Pasha Tomb, the stolen antiques are worth 1,040,000 LE. The list of looted tombs is not very long, but let us hope it does not lengthen with time. end