Looting plagues archeology in Egypt. Using satellite data, scientists at the University of Alabama found that stealing more than doubled between 2009 and 2010 and then doubled again after the revolution. The professors and archeologists at the university consider the crime "simply staggering". And what the researchers in Alabama discovered from thousands of kilometers in the sky, Soliman saw with her own eyes. "Tens of monuments were being looted," Soliman told me.
Some of the stolen items went to Europe and the US, but much of the Islamic art found its way to the neighboring Gulf region. A lion’s share winds up in private collections in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. But without hard facts at hand, Egypt cannot hope to retrieve the treasure trafficked under radar to their new private owners.
Without trained staff to look after them, no less damaging is the abandonment of many antiquity sites. “Without tourism,” officials tell Egyptologists like Soliman, “there is no money.” Privately, one official even told her, “May some of these artifacts disappear so we have less on our shoulders.”
Egypt is not helping itself. Try and secure an Islamic monument home, as scholars and researchers do sometimes for academic purposes, and you will find outrageously priced daily rentals reaching nearly 30,000 Egyptian pounds, says Soliman. It is the same faulty logic that has a failing Suez Canal increasing tariffs to make up for lost revenue. The result? Even more ships finding alternate routes and costing Egypt much-needed revenue. It is the same with antiquities tourism: how do you insist on setting such high prices when demand is at an all-time low and services are lacking at many of these sites?
Personal relationships, sleight of hand, a few pounds and a smile get Soliman access to many sites so she can document them. But under the draconian political circumstances, photographing dilapidated sites to bring attention to corruption and a slow-as-black-Egyptian-molasses bureaucracy could mean prison time. "I think 9,000 times before going to photograph…I have to be smart," she said. But she does risk arrest for her blog, Bassara Heritage, where she documents all that she sees with her trusted assistant, Mohamed Soliman, no relation, but a fellow history buff.
Egypt is in an unenviable economic hole. The country’s income from tourism, which reached over $12.5bn in 2010, had fallen to $5.9bn by 2013. The return of that missing revenue would do wonders for an economy that is losing allies in the all-important Gulf, with Saudia Arabia pulling back so much that Sisi, on Twitter earlier this week, said "enough dependence on our Arab brothers".
To get you have to give and Soliman says three things need to happen for the twin fields of Pharaonic antiquities and Islamic art to flourish:
1. Admit there is a problem
2. Wipe out corruption in "every corner and every breath"
3. A short term and long term plan for the overall management of the country’s antiquities
Soliman is right, but even more needs to change. Egypt is a country not only stagnating, but one that is taking decisive steps backwards under the auspices of a counter revolution. In such an environment, the old rule and the young are thrown by the way side because they represent change. Change and counter revolutions don’t mix. There are those within those two crucial ministries who want to protect these treasures, to document their existence and to stamp out corruption. But all of their purity of intent is blown to bits within ministries where standard operating procedure is highly averse to change.
When the dollar hits 17 Egyptian pounds, the economic disaster can be used to bring tourists with their strengthened dollars back. In a country experiencing a monumental fit of xenophobia triggered by the Sisi cult’s hyper nationalism, this is a near impossible task. If the enemy is the foreigner, how can he also be the savior? For hope to return where archeologists roam, there must be change. Much like the country housing it, the world of antiquities awaits a revolution to protect its very existence.
- Amr Khalifa is a freelance journalist and analyst recently published in Ahram Online, Mada Masr,The New Arab, Muftah and Daily News Egypt. You can follow him on Twitter@cairo67unedited.