Egyptian police have stopped an attempt to expand a modern graveyard right next to the ancient site of Dahshur, home of the Bent Pyramid, Ahram Online reports.
The pyramid had already been damaged earlier this year by the encroaching cemetery. Authorities stopped construction at that time, but now new incursions are threatening the site. In the more recent incident, police arrested one man and are looking for three more.
The pyramid, which reopened to the public in 2009 after many years of being closed, is believed to have been built by the Pharaoh Sneferu. It gets its name from the fact that its upper portion slants at a different angle from the lower portion. Egyptologists believe that as the structure was being built, engineers changed their design out of fear that it would collapse. As a result, the bottom part of the pyramid rises up at a 55º angle, then transitions to 43º as it nears the top.
Dahshur is a royal necropolis and several other pyramids and tombs are in the area.
This is just one of a series of incidents that are threatening Egypt’s priceless ancient heritage. Continuing political chaos and a lack of sufficient security are making archaeological sites easy prey for “developers” and looters. Last month an entire museum was looted. Most artifacts were stolen. Those that couldn’t be moved were destroyed, with vandals smashing statues and burning mummies. The economic crisis in Egypt is fueling much of the theft, and a rising Islamist movement that has no respect for pre-Islamic cultures is creating an atmosphere of callousness.
The political instability in Egypt is taking a heavy toll on the country’s ancient heritage.
Thieves have taken advantage of the chaotic situation to steal artifacts to sell on the illegal antiquities market, while vandals have been satisfied with simply destroying them.
Both groups recently struck at a museum in Mallawi, about 190 miles south of Cairo. When supporters of deposed president Mohamed Morsi held a protest in the museum’s garden, thieves took advantage of the police being distracted to break in and steal more than a thousand artifacts. When vandals saw the museum was open and unguarded, they rushed in and smashed up the place.
National Geographic has published some sobering pictures of the destruction. The museum has put up a Facebook page detailing what has been stolen in the hope that it will make it harder for the thieves to sell the artifacts.
Looting has been reported at numerous museums and archaeological sites around the country. Instability and lack of income from tourism also means many archaeological sites are suffering from neglect. There may be a political motivation for some of the thefts. Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram quotes Mokhtar Al-Kasabani, professor of Islamic Archaeology at Cairo University, as saying the thefts are to raise money for the Muslim Brotherhood and Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya. The Muslim Brotherhood is Morsi’s party, and Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya (Islamic Group) was allied with him when he was in power.
Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya claimed responsibility for a 1997 terrorist attack in Luxor that killed 62 people, mostly tourists. So it appears fundamentalists are destroying Egypt’s past in order to raise money to endanger its future.
Since the January 2011 Revolution, Egypt has been suffering social and political unrest, and its tourism industry has been hit hard.
Now the tumultuous situation is affecting one of the nation’s main sources of income – its ancient heritage. Al-Ahram Weekly investigated several reports of damage at ancient sites and found a dire situation of neglect and willful destruction. At the ancient capital Amarna, farmers spread their fields onto the archaeological site. Part of the Graeco-Roman site of Al-Bordan got bulldozed when “developers” built holiday homes for themselves. At the ancient city of Iwn, a group moved in and built a car wash right on top of some ancient buildings.
In some places the destruction has been stopped. Police stepped in at Amarna before any serious damage was done. In others, the damage is already done and is even continuing.
The most famous site to suffer damage is Dashour, site of the famous Bent Pyramid (shown here in this Wikimedia Commons image). Part of the pyramid was damaged when locals built a cemetery nearby. Others in the area see the value of the site and staged a protest at the pyramid, holding up signs that said, “God does not bless a nation that ruins its heritage,” and, “Heritage is our past, present and future. Let’s protect it with love and respect.”
A growing Islamist movement in Egypt has been blamed for the recent upturn in disrespect for ancient sites, but the Al-Ahram reports that even Cairo’s ninth century Ibn Tulun mosque has suffered neglect and the area next to the walls is being used as a refuse dump.
Tourism is one of Egypt’s main sources of hard currency. With tourist numbers down, police and archaeologists struggle to get the funds to protect the sites that generate income, thus creating a vicious downward spiral.
Ancient Egyptian mummies have been an object of fascination. The Greek historian Herodotus, who lived in the fifth century B.C., visited Egypt and wrote a description of the mummification process. Since no ancient Egyptian text survives, his account forms the basis of many descriptions in modern books and museum displays.
Now a new study by two Canadian scientists suggests Herodotus may have gotten it wrong.
Yahoo News reports that two of the key points in Herodotus’ account – that the internal organs were dissolved with cedar oil enemas and the heart was always left in place – don’t stand up to scientific scrutiny. Researchers have examined studies of 150 mummies and put seven through CT scans and found little evidence of cedar oil. Also, in three-quarters of the mummies the heart was missing.
Herodotus also said that the brains were removed with a hook pushed through the nose. The study shows brains in about a fifth of mummies.
So why did Herodotus get it wrong? The study’s coauthor Andrew Wade of the University of Western Ontario says mummification was a lucrative business and its secrets closely guarded. In other words, Herodotus was handed a line. Imagine a bunch of mummy makers drinking wine by the Nile after a busy day at the office and laughing about that clueless Greek who showed up asking questions. “Cedar oil enemas? Yeah, save that for the tourists!”
Another possibility is that the mummy makers cut corners. In many animal mummies, used as offerings to the gods, researchers found only partial skeletons or wrappings that contained nothing. Temples made lots of money selling animal mummies to the faithful, and they created fakes to increase profits.
The Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University has a longer account of Herodotus’ writings on mummification here. The study was published in the latest issue of HOMO: The Journal of Comparative Human Biology.
[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]
Thanksgiving is a holiday that embraces traditions. It only seemed appropriate then to close out this long holiday weekend with an image of that most-iconic of Egyptian historical landmarks: the Sphinx. This image was taken by Flickr user robert vaccaro. I like the shot’s side-profile perspective and the nice contrast of sandy rock with clean, blue sky. It’s a simple yet classic image that’s well framed and eye-catching.
Taken any great photos on your trip to Egypt? Or maybe just during your visit to Cairo, Illinois? Why not add them to our Gadling group on Flickr? We might just pick one of yours as our Photo of the Day.
[Photo credit: Flickr user robert vaccaro]