By: Peter Herdrich
EFFORTS TO SAVE EGYPTIAN ANTIQUITIES ARE PICKING UP SPEED. BUT WHOSE RESPONSIBILITY IS IT?
The Washington Post recently published an opinion piece by Mohammed Ibrahim, Egypt’s minister of antiquities, under the headline, “Egypt’s stolen heritage.” In it, Mr. Ibrahim connects Egypt’s archaeological heritage to two centuries of tourism, stating that tourism is “the lifeblood of Egypt’s economy and touches the lives of most Egyptians.” He decries thieves who “are taking advantage of Egypt’s security situation to loot our nation’s economic future and steal from our children.” And the minister laments the role of auction houses in enabling the sale of antiquities. While citing cooperation from Christie’s and two Israeli auction houses, Ibrahim says that among those selling antiquities, cooperation with the Egyptian government’s efforts is, at best, mixed.
Important points all, outlining issues well known to readers of The Ancient Near East Today. What is remarkable about Minister Ibrahim’s op-ed though is a call to action addressed to Americans. The Minister writes, “Egyptians need the people and the government of the United States to support our efforts to combat the systematic and organized looting of our museums and archaeological sites,” adding “international institutions, governments, business, archaeologists and other experts must come together to explore how to help countries in need protect their treasures.”
The leader of the Egyptian effort in the U.S. to engage Americans in the fight against looting is Yasser Elnaggar, the Deputy Chief of Mission at the Egyptian Embassy in Washington, DC. Elnaggar has a message directly for ASOR. “Combating looting is a shared responsibility. The international community’s help is needed to combat theft of Egypt’s historical and archaeological treasures, a worrisome trend exacerbated by Egypt’s current security situation,” the diplomat wrote in an email. “It is time for international institutions like ASOR, governments, business and experts, through public-private partnerships to come together to explore how to help countries protect their treasures in times of need.”
The message from Egypt is clear. Leaders there would like to see ASOR and its members help in the fight against looting. But what members and others might not know is that ASOR is already playing a leading role in that effort as a founding partner in the International Coalition to Protect Egyptian Antiquities (ICPEA).
The International Coalition to Protect Egyptian Antiquities got its start in 2011 in the wake of the political revolution in Egypt. In May of that year, the Egyptian government invited the Coalition to travel to Cairo to discuss issues of archaeological heritage protection. Deborah Lehr, Chair of the Capitol Archaeological Institute (CAI) in Washington, DC, and Eric H. Cline, Director of the Institute, led the group. Cline, incoming coeditor of BASOR, is also Professor of Classics and Anthropology and Chair of the Department of Classical and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at the George Washington University and serves as the ASOR liaison.
In my former capacity as CEO of the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA), I also joined the mission, along with Dr. Sarah Parcak, assistant professor of anthropology, epidemiology, and environmental health at the University of Alabama-Birmingham, Claire Buchan Parker, a former deputy White House press secretary, and Ted Greenberg, a criminal investigator formerly with the Department of Justice. Among the other institutions supporting the effort are the National Geographic Society, the US Egypt Business Council, the AIA, and the American Research Center in Egypt (ARCE).
“Reports of significant looting at key archaeological sites, storage units, and the museums came pouring in during the weeks after the revolution,” Dr. Cline recalls. “The CAI’s location in Washington, DC allowed it to pull together archaeologists, former government officials, diplomats, and other necessary experts to develop a plan of action to support the Egyptian government during this time of turmoil. In coordination with the Egyptian Embassy in Washington, we submitted our proposal to the Egyptian government.”
With the political and social upheaval around the revolution, the mission hoped to offer assistance to the Egyptian government in their efforts to combat looting and address incapacities in the system of cultural heritage protection. Dr. Cline explains, “Our intent is to use our skills and resources to support the Egyptian government in its time of need to maintain the strong ties and goodwill that ASOR has built up over the years in Egypt.” Working with Dr. Andrew Vaughn at headquarters in Boston, ASOR became an enthusiastic supporter of these goals, something that was noticed in Cairo and Washington. “I commend ASOR and its members on their efforts and dedication, they were among the first to join the efforts initiated and led by the GW Capitol Archaeological Institute, in launching the International Coalition to Protect Egyptian Antiquities,” Deputy Chief of Mission Elnaggar remarked.
In negotiations led by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the mission received a warm welcome in Cairo from government officials. Over thirty Egyptian officials attended meetings from virtually all government agencies involved in protecting antiquities, including the Ministries of Antiquities, Foreign Affairs, Tourism, Interior, and International Cooperation. Topics discussed with the Egyptian officials included creating a database of Egypt’s archaeological sites and online inventories of storerooms and museums, capacity building for antiquities inspectors and guards, tightening border security, developing an educational campaign, and establishing a small business initiative to help protect sites.
Satellite images analyzed by Dr. Parcak illustrated the expansion of looting at sites in Egypt, and all five Ministries offered statements of support for ICPEA’s work. Negotiations began on a memorandum of understanding to create a public-private partnership to aid in efforts to combat looting – the first of its kind. CAI Chair Deborah Lehr explains, “Times of political transition and challenge too often leave ancient sites and artifacts open to criminal activity and looting. While the Egyptian government’s commitment to protect antiquities in the wake of political challenges is critical, they can’t do it alone. By mobilizing a public-private partnership, we can help Egypt reclaim its cultural heritage and economic future.”
Perseverance has paid off. The Coalition and the Ministry of Antiquities have reached a mutual agreement to cooperate on a comprehensive plan to protect Egypt’s archaeological and cultural heritage sites and artifacts. Minister of Antiquities Ibrahim has said he will travel to the U.S. to sign the memorandum of understanding with representatives of the International Coalition to Protect Egyptian Antiquities and to publicize efforts to protect Egyptian antiquities both at home and abroad.
ASOR members can do their part as well. Yasser Elnaggar suggests advocacy, conducting cultural awareness campaigns, and media outreach, adding, “I would also encourage you to spread the word about antiquities thefts through social media. As a prominent institution, simply engaging your audience can be a first step to help stop the theft of Egyptian antiquities.”
In his op-ed, Minister Ibrahim says, “Our country is willing to take a strong stand.” With its support of the effort by the IPCEA, ASOR is taking a stand as well, side by side with Egypt in the fight to put a stop to looting.
(If you would like to learn more about the International Coalition for the Protection of Egyptian Antiquities and to get involved, please contact Katie Paul at TheAntiquitiesCoalition@gmail.com.)
Peter Herdrich is a consultant to business, government, and NGOs in the areas of preservation, coalition building, communications, and development.
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