Egypt pushes to reclaim antiquities lost to domestic smugglers and Western museums
As Egypt tries to rebuild its reputation as a tourist destination after several years of tumult in the wake of the Arab Spring, the country's world-renowned cultural heritage has played a key role.
Almost nine million tourists visited Egypt in 2019, many travelling to the Great Pyramid of Giza and other Egyptian historic sites.
The country has at least 138 pyramids, every further discovery renewing Egypt's appeal as a unique journey into ancient history.
Egyptian authorities hope that the country's growing stability will encourage the arrival of even more tourists.
Battling the Islamic State group (IS) in the Sinai Peninsula and containing other threats to security have represented one front of the Egyptian campaign to court tourists, but Egyptian officials are also pushing to reclaim antiquities lost to domestic smugglers and Western museums.
|Egypt complained to Britain that the British auction house Christie's was proceeding with the sale of an artefact that an Egyptian archeologist described as 'taken out of Egypt illegally'|
Just this July, Egypt complained to Britain that the British auction house Christie's was proceeding with the sale of an artefact that an Egyptian archeologist described as "taken out of Egypt illegally."
"The key issue is the willingness of overseas auction houses to sell material that is likely to have been – but cannot be proved to have been – smuggled," observed Dr Aidan Dodson, a senior associate teacher and honorary professor of Egyptology at the University of Bristol.
"Also, smugglers are getting increasingly sophisticated in forging documentation that 'proves' that the items left Egypt before 1970 – or at least 1983 – requiring a lot of work to disprove."
Though outside experts never confirmed Egypt's claims about the Christie's sale, artefacts stolen from Egypt have found their way to Britain before. In January, Egypt announced the recovery of a relief featuring the Ancient Egyptian king Amenhotep I from a British auction house.
Pharaohs sculptures and artefacts in the ancient Egyptian sculpture room at the British Museum in London [Getty]
In some ways, Egyptian authorities have been struggling with the problem for centuries. Napoleon found the Rosetta Stone during the French occupation of Egypt in 1799. Much to Egypt's chagrin, the artefact now sits in the British Museum despite Egyptian officials requesting its return.
"Objects are ripped out of their contexts and sold illegally," Dr Salima Ikram, a distinguished university professor of Egyptology and Egyptology Unit Head at the American University in Cairo, told The New Arab.
"The information that they bring to the world about the culture of Ancient Egypt and also about the individuals to whom they belonged is irretrievably lost to us. It is the theft of world heritage, that of a country, and also that of an individual."
While the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and a handful of treaties have sought to curb the smuggling of artefacts from the Global South in recent decades, the Arab Spring undermined much of Egypt's progress on this front.
As Egyptian law enforcement agencies and security forces became preoccupied with navigating the country's new political landscape after 2011, they dedicated fewer resources to protecting Egypt's antiquities, enabling smugglers to loot historic sites such as Abusir, home to several pyramids.
"During the period of the 2011 revolution, a massive amount of illicit digging took place, with attempts made to smuggle material out of the country," Dodson told The New Arab.
"Before and after there were significant successes, but the financial rewards of smuggling are high, encouraging people to try it, and also to try to 'buy' officials."
|For every one object taken out and smuggled, dozens might be destroyed, and the site itself so badly destroyed as to lose much of its archaeological value|
Noting that IS often finances its operations with the sale of looted artefacts, Egypt is attempting to reframe its ongoing offensive against the terrorist group as part of a wider bid to safeguard the country's cultural heritage.
Egypt also imposes strict penalties on looters, including a $55,000 fine and up to ten years in prison; Egyptian lawmakers discussed toughening those punishments last year.
For their part, Egyptologists lament the damage that looting and smuggling have done to the artefacts of Ancient Egypt, whose outsize popularity and ubiquity belie their fragility.
"Extracting artefacts damages archaeological sites, and often means the destruction of material not of interest to the smugglers – 'collateral damage,'" Dodson told The New Arab.
"For every one object taken out and smuggled, dozens might be destroyed, and the site itself so badly destroyed as to lose much of its archaeological value."
Egypt's two-front push to defend its cultural heritage by reclaiming antiquities from abroad and stopping looters and smugglers at home is yielding some results.
In 2014, France returned 250 artefacts to Egypt, and Egyptian authorities repatriated over one hundred more from the United States in 2015. Egyptian law enforcement agencies have also publicised the arrests of looters, among them the detention of an Egyptian searching for artefacts under his own house.
Experts argue that, however much Egypt does on its own, the country will also need buy-in from its allies and the international community to realise long-term success. Once antiquities leave Egypt, Egyptian authorities have far less power to defeat smugglers on their own.
"We need stricter rules for buyers," urged Ikram, "and more countries need to sign and adhere to UNESCO and other agreements to not be a party to the sale of illegal antiquities."
Austin Bodetti studies the intersection of Islam, culture, and politics in Africa and Asia. He has conducted fieldwork in Bosnia, Indonesia, Iraq, Myanmar, Nicaragua, Oman, South Sudan, Thailand, and Uganda. His research has appeared in The Daily Beast, USA Today, Vox, and Wired.