Egypt’s Ancient Heritage In Peril As Turmoil Continues

Egypt
Mallawi Museum One of the stolen artifacts.

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.

Could Bahrain Become The Next Big Heritage Tourism Destination?

Bahrain, Dilmun
Desert Island Boy, flickr

The tiny Persian Gulf island nation of Bahrain is home to one of the most mysterious ancient civilizations of the Middle East.

Archaeologists have long known about a civilization called Dilmun. It’s mentioned in many Mesopotamian texts as a wealthy place of “sweet water.” Even the Epic of Gilgamesh mentions it, but all the sources were vague about its location.

It wasn’t until the middle of the 20th century that excavations in Bahrain uncovered impressive cities and temples and proved that Dilmun was located there. Archaeologists found that Dilmun had been an important center for the Persian Gulf trade route that flourished between the Mesopotamian civilizations in what is now Iraq and the Indus Valley in southern Asia around 2000 B.C. Dilmun’s trade connections also extended to civilizations in Oman, Turkey, and Syria.

Dilmun owed its importance for being one of the few spots to get fresh water along the route. Ships would stop there to rest and fill up on supplies, and Dilmun became an important player in world trade.

Now the Bahraini government is looking to make Bahrain a destination for heritage tourism. Of the two UNESCO World Heritage and five tentative sites in Bahrain, five belong to the Dilmun civilization. One of the most important, the ancient city of Saar, is now undergoing restoration after a recent excavation. The BBC reports that Bahraini archaeologists have shifted their efforts from excavating more of the site to developing it for tourism and exhibiting the many artifacts they’ve uncovered, such as this seal dug up near Saar.

%Gallery-188932%Saar is remarkably well preserved. The site is encircled by thick stone walls that in parts still stand as high as ten feet, and there are well-preserved foundations of temples, homes with intact ovens, shops, and even restaurants.

The capital of Dilmun was the even more impressive Qal’at al-Bahrain, a town that was occupied from 2300 B.C. to the 16th century A.D. Remains of the city and its port can still be seen today. The most striking building at the site is actually the latest, a fort the Portuguese erected when they were trying to control trade in the Gulf.

Other sites include the Barbar Temple, which dates back to the earliest period of Dilmun and was rebuilt on the same site over several centuries. Bahrain is also home to some 170,000 burial mounds, some of which date back to the Dilmun period. These are collected in what are called “tumuli fields”, where hundreds of artificial mounds cover the remains of this ancient people.

Despite all the excavations, we still don’t know several basic facts about Dilmun, such as when the civilization started and ended, or what language the people spoke. Its borders are equally unclear. It appears that at time Dilmun controlled more than just Bahrain, extending to the eastern coast of the Saudi peninsula.

The modern Bahrain National Museum in the capital Manama has an entire hall devoted to Dilmun. There you can see maps and artifacts explaining the role this civilization played in the long-distance trade in the Persian Gulf. The museum also has exhibitions for other historical periods and a large collection of traditional costumes.

As Egypt’s Tourism Industry Languishes, Antiquities Under Threat

Egypt
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.

Islamists Attack Hotel Bar In Tunisia

Tunisia
Tunisia has long been a favorite North African destination for its beautiful beaches, ancient ruins, and relatively tolerant atmosphere. That tolerance, however, may be changing.

The BBC reports that a group of Salafists, Muslim hardliners who have been gaining in influence in recent months, stormed into a hotel bar in Sidi Bouzid. The Salafists had warned the Horchani hotel management to stop serving alcohol and when they didn’t comply, dozens of Islamists entered the hotel bar, chased away the customers, and smashed the bottles. They also entered rooms in search of alcohol and turned their wrath on the furniture.

There were no reported injuries.

Sidi Bouzid was the birthplace of the Arab Spring. It was here in 2010 that a fruit seller set himself on fire to protest government corruption and oppression. This set off a chain of events that toppled governments in several Arab nations. While the Arab Spring has opened up the possibility of democracy, it has also encouraged Islamist groups that were generally suppressed by the old-style military dictators.

[Photo courtesy Flickr user spDuchamp. This is not a photo of the Tunisian hotel and is used for illustrative purposes only.]

Destruction, Looting Of Syria’s Ancient Heritage Continues, Report Says

Syria
The upheaval in Syria has been going on for more than a year now, and in that time thousands of people have been killed, including many civilians and children. Syria’s many ancient sites are also getting damaged. Previously, we’ve talked about how the Syrian army has shelled the ancient city of Palmyra and the Crusader castle Crac des Chevaliers. Both of these are UNESCO World Heritage Sites, of which there are six in the country.

A report by the Global Heritage Fund states that these and many other sites and museums, are getting damaged and looted in the chaos. Sites like Tell Sheikh Hamad, pictured above in this Wikimedia Commons image. This Assyrian town was inhabited for several centuries and archaeologists have found numerous cuneiform inscriptions there. Recently it became a battleground between the Syrian army and deserters. An Assyrian temple reportedly collapsed when it got hit by shellfire and the rest of the site likely suffered serious damage as well.

The medieval citadel of Hama has also been shelled, as can be seen in the video below.

Besides the fighting, historic sites are getting damaged by troops digging trenches, tanks rolling over fragile areas, and snipers building positions atop historic homes. Not even mosques have been safe, with several historic mosques suffering damage.

Looting is also a serious problem since members of museum staff are often not around to guard their collections due to the fighting. In Crac des Chevaliers, looters kicked out the staff at gunpoint and started digging.

With no end in sight for the Syrian Civil War, it’s certain that more of the nation’s previous heritage will be destroyed or stolen.