The much celebrated scene of the Protestants creating a human barrier around the Egyptian Museum in Cairo In the first days of the revolution in the country, it is still fresh in our minds. People fought for many things, including safeguard cultural heritage. However, numerous warehouses and archaeological sites throughout the country such as Establ Antar, Al-Lisht and Al-Hibeh continue to be looted.
The most recent case was that of Qubbet Effendina, a Khedive Tawfik cemetery east of Cairo, where two historic Kaaba kiswas were stolen in March.
Reinstall security seems the most important solution, but many of the problems come from the lack of proper documentation of millions of objects scattered in museums and warehouses across the country, making it difficult to identify stolen artifacts.
- One of the last objects recovered after the fall of an antiquities smuggling ring
Although log books of objects exist in museums and warehouses, it had not been established an appropriate and unified digital record system by the old authorities. This system would save a lot of effort and time because, in addition to protection and security problems, Egypt suffers from a real gap in documentation of its valuable antiques.
Even the most prestigious museum in the country overlooking Tahrir Square has a long way to go. Since 2007, Department of Registration and Management of the Collection of the Egyptian Museum has been creating a database with the vast collection of the museum.
“The database is useful, as we have almost all museum objects registered. Unfortunately, we do not yet know the specific locations in the museum galleries of the objects.", He says Yasmine al-Shazly, head of the museum's documentation department. "It will take us years to make a proper inventory of the entire museum”.
Once inventory work is complete, it will be easy to determine if something is missing from a display case just by doing a location search, he adds.
While similar efforts are underway carrying out internal searches at other museums, another list has recently been compiled to help. Since March last year, the International Council of Museums (ICOM), an organization founded in France in 1946 to foster cooperation between museums around the world and protect the world's cultural and natural heritage, has spearheaded an initiative to create the Emergency Red List of Egyptian Cultural Objects at Risk. The list was released in early February, coinciding with the opening of the National Museum of Civilization in Old Cairo.
But unlike specific collections, Red Lists are to indicate the types of objects more exposed to theft.
“Red Lists are practical tools for police and customs officials, as well as art and heritage professionals. They help by identifying the category of products that are most prone to smuggling and illicit trade and contribute significantly to the seizure and restitution of goods.”Explains Juliens Aufruns, Director General of ICOM.
Since 2000, ICOM has developed ten Red Lists for “vulnerable areas of the world”, Including Afghanistan, Peru, Colombia, China and of course Iraq with the massive looting after the US invasion in 2003. Through the wide dissemination of the lists, some stolen objects have been recovered. In January 2006, an Iraqi foundation nail was identified during a hearing in Paris and in 2004 and 2005, French customs officials seized more than 6,000 Nigerian items stolen, returning them to the country of origin.
- There is a high smuggling of antiquities in Egypt
“For Egypt, a Red List would not contain iconic objects like Tutankhamun's Mask as anyone could identify him”Says Shazly. "There are no lists of stolen items, but there are lists of the types of items that are popular in the market”.
The first idea came up in March 2011. ICOM organized an official visit to Cairo, where they met the museum directors to assess the risks due to the lost security situation, explains Aufruns. It was then that it was decided that a Emergency Red List of Egyptian Cultural Objects at Risk could increase national and international awareness of these types of cultural objects, protected by national legislation, which are at risk.
The Red List Egyptian catalog ten different categories of objects such as statues, vessels, everyday objects, textiles and manuscripts from the Predynastic, Pharaonic and Nubian eras to the Greco-Roman, Coptic and Islamic periods. Also briefly described Egyptian law related to antiques and gives advice to the police and customs officials on how to deal with suspected illegal antiquities trade.
“We try to cover most of the objects that were stolen in the post-revolutionary period as well as those objects that have a high price in the antique market”Says Salima Ikram, a professor of Egyptology at the American University in Cairo and one of the Egyptologists who participated in creating the list.
Numerous international institutions from Egypt, the United States, France, Belgium and Spain participated in the creation of the list. Includes the contribution of Egyptologists, museum curators, and historians.
Shazly from documentation department of the Egyptian Museum, also worked on the development of the list. "I think that an Emergency Red List has to be created in Egypt because even though we have a list of lost items from the Egyptian Museum, that list might not be produced in other places where many items that were not registered have been stolen. Customs officials need something to help them identify those objects that have been smuggled into Egypt”, He tells the Egypt Independent.
This list could help reinforce security forces around the world to identify objects from Ancient Egypt and stop their smuggling. Right now, Egyptian objects are more at risk than they have ever been despite the hard work of the Ministry of Antiquitiessays Ikram.
So while the reinstatement of safety on Egyptian streets seems distant, archaeologists and heritage workers are joining forces to help protect the country's cultural heritage.
With a degree in Journalism and Audiovisual Communication, since I was a child I have been attracted to the world of information and audiovisual production. Passion for informing and being informed of what is happening in every corner of the planet. Likewise, I am pleased to be part of the creation of an audiovisual product that will later entertain or inform people. My interests include cinema, photography, the environment and, above all, history. I consider it essential to know the origin of things to know where we come from and where we are going. Special interest in curiosities, mysteries and anecdotal events in our history.