In the foreground: Dahshur's black pyramid. Photo courtesy of Ahmed Ezzat.
Protesters gathered Monday near Egypt’s Dahshur pyramids to demand that the government take action against widespread robbing of their ancient tombs. Archaeologists say that this looting has gotten out of control since the Egyptian revolution.
The Dahshur complex is a 4,500-year-old necropolis built by Pharaoh Sneferu. It is known for its oddly-shaped “bent” pyramid, as well as smoother pyramids that heralded the more famous Giza pyramids located nearby. Burial grounds surrounding the Dahshur pyramids remain largely unexplored by archaeologists, making them a prime target for looters.
Monday’s protest brought together about 100 people – both local residents and archaeologists working to protect the UNESCO heritage site.
Protesters gathered near Dahshur on Monday. Photo courtesy of Ahmed Ezzat.
“The pyramids’ guards have 9mm handguns; the looters have machineguns”
Monica Hanna is an archaeologist who took part in the protest. She has frequently visited Dahshur to examine the damage done by looters.
The looters are excavating around the black pyramid and the bent pyramid every day and every night. When it’s dark, they even use bulldozers. They dig up such large areas that you can see where they’re working clearly on satellite images. There are a couple of guards at these pyramids, but they’re outnumbered. They have 9mm handguns; the looters have machineguns.Villagers have built a new cemetery near the bent pyramid. [Editor’s Note: This construction has been carried out illegally.] Some are genuinely doing this to bury their relatives, because their old cemetery is full; however, I have also seen looters working there.The new cemetary. Photo courtesy of Monica Hanna.“Lots of people have lost their jobs, and are now hoping to strike it rich by digging up buried treasure”There has never been a proper scientific excavation around these pyramids – it’s basically virgin territory. The ground is full of Middle Kingdom artefacts. For years, there has been small-scale looting, but since the revolution, it’s become massive. Lots of people have lost their jobs, and are now hoping to strike it rich by digging up buried treasure. And with the currently security vacuum in Egypt, the looters are not at all worried about getting caught.From my interviews with villagers, I’ve gathered that the looters – who are both locals and people from other cities - have already found quite a few tomb shafts, statues, and amulets. They sell them to bigger mafia operations that then smuggle them abroad.This problem is not unique to Dahshur. Looting of archaeological sites has become a true epidemic throughout Egypt. Archaeologists and concerned residents are doing everything they can to put pressure on the government to do something about it. Personally, I think that beyond increasing security, creating more small museums would help a lot by bringing a bit of tourism to villages that are not on the tourism map.
A hole dug by looters. Photo courtesy of Ahmed Ezzat.
“Looters don’t see the pyramids as their heritage as Egyptians – they see it as the property of the government”
Ahmed Ezzat lives in Dahshur village. He helped organise the protest.
I’ve talked to looters I’ve met in local cafés. They don’t hide what they’re doing. Some have told me they’ve found basalt statues. One man told me he didn’t find a thing after digging for two months, and gave up. What’s certain is that none of them understand the real value of these objects. They don’t even know what dynasty they’re from. They’re not educated men. They don’t see the pyramids as their heritage as Egyptians – they see it as the property of the government, and since they feel abandoned by the current government, they think that what they’re doing is completely justified.It makes me so sad to see that so many Egyptian treasures are scattered in museums all over the world. I don’t want what we have left to end up abroad, too.
Post written with FRANCE 24 journalist Gaelle Faure (@gjfaure).