This weekend my husband and I went to watch Monument’s Men. It was a decent movie but nothing to brag to our friends about. However the truth is, hardly anyone, including myself, except maybe the readers of two recent books, knew much about this story. And, now thanks to Hollywood millions are now going to learn more, even if, as usual, Hollywood manipulated some of the facts for the plot.
What the movie did do however, is got me thinking, particularly about Egypt and the monuments that exist and existed there. If you have been able to visit Egypt many guides will tell you “they took the best and left the rest behind. If they could have moved the Sphinx, it would now be in Versailles.”
You only have to go to The British Museum and The Louvre to see the vast, gluttonous treasures that were stolen. Excluding the museums of Egypt, The British Museum currently houses more Egyptian artifacts than any other institution. The museum’s collection of Egyptian relics numbers over 100,000.
The Louvre’s impressive collection of Egyptian relics clocks in at over 50,000 pieces. Twenty rooms of artifacts hold such wonders as mummies, colorful jewelry, child’s games, and clothing. Particularly delightful pieces include: The Great Sphinx of Tanis (This granite sphinx weighs in at over 24 tons, making it one of the biggest sphinxes outside of Egypt) and the Colossal Statue of Ramesses II and the Queen Cleopatra Stele.
Monument’s have a far reaching purpose. Monuments and cemeteries serve as the primary visible link between the past, present and future. They are practically the only artifacts that survive for long periods of time outside of a museum. They are an integral part of our culture and heritage and serve as vital reminders of who we are and where we came from.
And, in an increasingly anonymous world many people are searching for their roots and a sense of identity. Monuments are especially valuable in this respect because they provide concrete evidence, acting as a ‘time capsule’ from the past. The knowledge that can be taken away from monuments is a tremendous asset that is a cornerstone of this very important search.
Protecting cultural property is about more than old books, buildings and fine paintings. Our cultural heritage stands as the symbol of everything humanity has achieved: our finest moments and even our worst atrocities. It is the physical reminder of our past and inspiration for our future. While not every site can be saved, its loss should be a matter of necessity and never convenience. As Eisenhower stated 70 years ago, to fight without even considering it is to sacrifice everything for which we are fighting.
The destruction and looting of cultural heritage has been intertwined with conflict for thousands of years. To steal an enemies’ treasures, defile their sacred places and burn their cities has been part of war throughout history. And sadly, in the modern battlefields of the ancient world, in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, and elsewhere, it continues to this day.
The plunder of Egypt’s cultural heritage has once again come to a boiling point.
As political turmoil engulfs Egypt, Americans should be watching closely. Home to some of the world’s oldest civilizations, Egypt has had a profound influence on the cultures of Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. For centuries, Egyptian archaeological sites have been looted – most recently to feed the black market trade of antiquities. Despite valiant calls for recovery, invaluable information about Egypt’s ancient past – and our shared history – has been irretrievably lost. Since the 2011 revolution, this situation has become increasingly acute.
We are losing history here…Egyptian history, history for the whole world…by the clock.”
Yet even before the events of the Arab Spring raged across the Middle East and enraptured the world, the market for Syrian and Egyptian antiquities was booming.
While mainstream media reports about the nature and extent of the damage – and those responsible for the damage – have been numerous and sometimes conflicting, we can be thankful for the efforts of “ordinary” Egyptians who have joined together to use social media to keep the rest of the world informed about what is happening to Egypt’s heritage, our shared heritage.
Indefatigable Egyptian archaeologist Monica Hanna has been single-handedly exposing an incredible amount of looting in Egypt, even going so far as to confront some of the armed looters herself.
The US remains a leading market for antiquities. A quick search for “Egyptian antiquities” on the eBay site yields more than 180 results, ranging from an “ancient silver pendant” selling for $5 to a “wooden sarcophagus” in a three-day auction with an opening price of $12,665.00, marked down from $14,000, available within 5 miles from midtown Manhattan zip code 10019.
Antiquities thieves have benefitted the most from the waves of riots and lawlessness in Egypt, and they are making fortunes. Not a week goes by in Egypt without someone transporting stolen artifacts being arrested or stolen museum pieces being seized. Treasures are being stolen and sold on the black market with every wave of unrest. The crisis has grown from the looting of Egyptian museums with each riot wave to the looting of archaeological excavation sites.
Increased incidents of looting continue to exacerbate a situation already at great risk since the political turmoil. While little has been reported about the devastation in the press; thanks to Dr. Monica Hanna and her colleagues are keeping us updated on what’s going on.
Since the end of the revolution in 2011, there has been a lot of optimism on Egypt’s future. This optimism, however, has now faded as the difficulty in transitioning to democracy became apparent. Since President Mursi took office, things have been going down hill for the country. Egypt faces enormous challenges, which few are willing to discuss much less attempt to address.
There are no easy solutions for Egypt.
I join Dr. Hanna to call on journalists and bloggers who write about these issues to keep their attention on Egypt. Spread the message that destruction of cultural heritage is a nonrenewable loss to us all that no one should tolerate, regardless of who one is or where one lives.
This is wrong – looting is happening now, and without more awareness, it will continue to happen until there is nothing left to be learned from the decontextualized and ravaged objects.
“Raising awareness is really what we need,” so please help SAFE spread the word.
Live and Learn. We All Do.
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