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.

Syria unrest: will there be another massacre in Hama?

Syria, Hama, Syria unrestSyrian army tanks ‘moving towards Hama’.

Just another headline about unrest in the Middle East. I’ve read so many, but this one made me shudder. One thing travel does for you is make the world more than just a headline. I’ve been to Hama.

I visited Syria back in 1994 as a young college graduate with a backpack, a bit of Arabic, and no responsibilities. I spent a month exploring archaeological sites, chatting in smoky cafes, and debating religion in the cool shade of mosque courtyards. Syria is a fascinating and welcoming place, and if the regime of Bashar al-Assad gets ousted and peace returns, I highly recommend you go.

I marveled at the beautiful Umayyad Mosque in Damascus before going to a nearby cafe to listen to a hakawati, a traditional storyteller, recite his tales to a rapt audience. I looked out over the green hills of Lebanon from the turrets of Crac des Chevaliers castle and took a dusty bus ride to the oasis of Palmyra. And for two days I stayed in Hama to see the famous noria, or waterwheels, as seen here in this Wikimedia Commons photo.

There was something strange about Hama. It was supposed to be an old city yet most of the buildings looked new. Plus the tourist map on the wall of my hotel lobby was wrong. I’d copied parts of it into my notebook to help me get around but soon found the names of the streets had changed. Even their layout had changed. It was like a map of a different city.

Then I saw the same map in the lobby of another hotel, and in an antique shop. One night I asked the manager what was going on. He looked around to make sure nobody was within earshot and whispered, “This map shows Hama before the massacre.”I’d heard of that. The Muslim Brotherhood had been fighting against the Syrian government for several years and Hama was their main base. They attacked government targets and the government hauled away anyone who seemed suspicious. Most victims were innocent people caught in the crossfire.

One night in 1982 a Syrian army patrol discovered the local Muslim Brotherhood headquarters and a firefight broke out. The Brotherhood called for a general uprising. Fighting flared up all over the city. Hafez al-Assad, then Prime Minister and father of the current Prime Minister, ordered the armed forces to surround Hama. The air force dropped bombs while tanks and artillery shelled the city. Then the troops went in, shooting anything that moved. Nobody knows how many people died. Estimates range from 10,000 to 40,000, and all sources agree that most were civilians.

Now the Syrian army is moving towards Hama again. The son is continuing the work of his father.

This morning I flipped through my old travel diary, reliving the time I spent in Hama and Syria: the conversations, the hikes, the sense of wonder of a young man on his first year-long travel adventure. One thing that struck me was that of all the Syrians that diary mentions, none of them have entirely faded from my memory.

I remember the kindly old man who nursed me back to health after my first bad case of food poisoning. And the artist who drew a sketch of me that I still have. Then there was that wisecracking tailor who changed money at black market rates, building a nest egg of hard currency for reasons he’d never divulge. And the metalheads who introduced me to Syria’s underground music scene. It’s strange to think of those headbangers as forty-something fathers, but I suppose, like me, they are.

Or maybe they’ve been slaughtered.

None of those people liked the regime. The business owners hung a picture of Hafez al-Assad on the walls, just like they have a picture of Bashar nowadays. In a dictatorship that’s the price of doing business. But once the customers left and it was just us in a back room chatting over tea, their voices would lower and they’d complain about how the al-Assad family had a stranglehold on power.

The metalheads were louder in their protests and suffered regular police harassment. Since even their concerts were illegal they felt they had nothing to lose. They wanted to live life the way they chose. A few beatings and nights in jail was the price of a few hours of freedom.

I traveled all over the Middle East back then–Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, Palestine, Iran–and heard the same stories of frustration and anger in dozens of cities. The only thing that surprised me about the so-called Arab Revolution of 2011 was that it took so long.

In some places it’s succeeded; in Syria it looks like it will fail. Syria doesn’t have much oil so besides a few feeble sanctions, it’s doubtful the West will do much. Bashar al-Assad will imprison or kill anyone who speaks out against him and the protests will be suppressed.

Hama may be leveled again. Thousands may die–they may already be dying–and the city destroyed. After a time new shops and new hotels will open. Their owners will grit their teeth and hang a photo of Prime Minister Bashar al-Assad behind the counter. Then, I hope, they’ll pull out a worn old map of Hama the way it looked before 1982, and hang it right next to him.

The Arab revolution: the reaction of one Muslim community

arab revolution, Arab RevolutionFor the past few weeks, headlines all over the world have been dominated by the so-called Arab Revolution, a wave of anti-government protests across the Middle East. I’m living in the Ethiopian Muslim community of Harar and locals here are absorbed in the events. Sitting in living rooms or cafes to escape the heat of the day, all eyes are glued to the satellite channels and conversation revolves around the rapidly changing events.

The response has been overwhelmingly positive tempered by caution. They’re happy to see a strong pro-democracy movement in Egypt but say that since the army is the real power, democracy is still in danger. While the West worries about the Muslim Brotherhood taking over, one recent university graduate told me, “They only use Islam for political gain. Deal with them in economic terms and there will be no problem.”

The main talk right now, of course, is about Libya. Descriptions of Gaddafi range from “crazy” to “stupid” to “evil”. Some Hararis even say Gaddafi is a heroin addict. “He has an injured back and started taking it for the pain. He has a Russian nurse who follows him everywhere and gives him injections,” one friend told me. I’ve never heard that before, but it would explain the bizarre interviews and why he wears sunglasses indoors. Everyone thinks he’ll go down fighting rather than give up control.

Most people here watch Al-Jazeera. That station has taken definite sides in the Libyan revolution. When Gaddafi’s government blocked the Internet, Al Jazeera started running the addresses for proxy sites to access Gmail and Twitter.

Mazzika 1, an Egyptian music video station, is now running a video about the uprising, showing the protests in Tahrir Square, the faces of some of the dead, and the final joyous victory, all set to inspiring music. It makes an interesting contrast to their usual fare of Arab starlets gyrating in front of the camera.Ethiopians have no love of dictators. When the Derg regime under Colonel Mengistu Haile Miriam assassinated Haile Selassie in 1974, it started a brutal repression across the country that killed 500,000 people in its first year. Nobody knows the total number of victims. A bloody civil war finally toppled the regime and Mengistu fled to Zimbabwe, where he still lives in comfort. Ethiopia now enjoys a democracy. It isn’t perfect, but mechanisms are in place to perfect it. Ethiopians want to see the same for the Arab world. “They need it,” one Harari said, “or they’ll never be free.”

One friend put it in Marxist terms. “The French had the first bourgeois revolution in 1780. We had ours starting in 1966 and now finally the Arabs are having theirs.” He feels it’s the next step to creating an egalitarian state.

The Hararis I spoke with are surprised and cautiously optimistic by the protests in Saudi Arabia. That nation has a huge influence in Ethiopia because of its sponsorship of Wahhabi mosques and madrasas. Wahhabism is a strict form of Islam that in strong contrast to the tolerant, easygoing Islam practiced by most Ethiopians. It encourages Ethiopian women to wear the niqab and denouces the Harari reverence for Muslim saints as unislamic. The face veil is alien to Ethiopian culture, and Harar’s many Islamic saints are a cornerstone of their religious practice. One Harari friend called the Wahhabis “poisonous snakes.”

I won’t be like many journalists and pretend the dozen or so people I spoke to are representative of the feelings of the entire population, only a huge opinion poll could claim that, but the daily conversations I’ve been having about the Arab Revolution provide a viewpoint I couldn’t get anywhere else.

And that’s one of the best things travel can give us.

Don’t miss the rest of my Ethiopia travel series: Harar, Ethiopia: Two months in Africa’s City of Saints.

Coming up next: Homestays in Harar!