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On Assignment: In Egypt, the genie is out of the bottle

By Andrew Tkach
Rock Center

In Egypt, almost everyone lives on top of 5,000 years of history.  To uncover some of it, all you have to do is dig straight down, or better still, excavate where professional archeologists have pointed the way.

That’s exactly what happened to Carol Redmount and the ancient town of El Hibeh, trashed by a small army of armed looters.  Redmount is an archeologist from the University of California in Berkeley who has returned regularly to Egypt for almost 30 years. But nothing prepared her for what she discovered when she came back after the revolution: mummy body parts scattered about and chewed on by foxes and wild dogs, ancient tombs that she didn’t even know existed, pillaged and left open in the desert air, and unarmed antiquities inspectors intimidated by an escaped murderer who had shot at them.

HIDDEN PLANET: Watch Richard Engel's web series 'Hidden Planet: Inside the Pyramid of Giza'

Photo Credit: Carol Redmount

El Hibeh may be an ancient site, but it’s a modern-day crime scene and, according to Redmount, there’s no way to recover the knowledge that’s already lost.  “It's heartbreaking because cultural heritage is a non-renewable resource. Once it's gone, it's gone forever,” she said.

The Great Sphinx guarding Egypt’s Pyramids has seen pharaohs toppled and civilizations destroyed.  His nose was reportedly smashed in the 14th century by Sufi Muhammad Saim ad-Dahr, a religious fanatic who was angry that peasants were still making pagan offerings to this icon of Egypt’s pre-Islamic past.  So how will Egypt’s Pharaonic antiquities fare in a future that may be dominated by Islamists and the Muslim Brotherhood?


The country’s new president Mohammed Morsi has sought to allay fears that Islamists will set the country’s cultural agenda.  But the pre-election statements of the more hardline al Nour party or Salafist movement, who won 19-percent of the seats in the now-disqualified Parliament, did raise a few eyebrows.  During an election rally in Alexandria, the city founded by Alexander the Great, Salafist party workers reportedly covered up the mermaids in a public fountain with giant sheets of cloth. 

What can’t be covered up is the damage that some of their brethren have already inflicted on Egypt’s pre-Islamic monuments.  Outside Saqqara, the site of Egypt’s oldest pyramid, Rock Center visited a mosque that had been hastily built atop a causeway to a Pharaonic  temple in the weeks just after the revolution.  The men were putting the final touches on the main prayer hall and claimed that 10,000 villagers had helped clear out the refuse and support them in a dispute with Egypt’s Antiquities Department.  

“They were all celebrating that a garbage dump will become a mosque and that there will be a prayer to God,” said Emad Gouda.   The problem according Mohammed Mehagid, the young antiquities inspector at Saqqara who also backed the revolution, is that local people living near archaeological sites were never educated about their cultural value.  Few had ever visited  Egyptian monuments where millions of tourists had already tread.

 “For 30 years of Mubarak reign … people were feeling that it's not our country anymore so when the revolution came they thought 'O.K. We have to take revenge' and this [is] what happened in antiquities,” he said.  

But why take revenge against your own past?  Consider what the assassin of Mubarak’s predecessor said when he shot President Anwar Sadat: “I have killed the Pharaoh.” 

“You have to understand that, before the revolution, people called the police "hukuma" which means government,” said the young antiquities inspector.  “So when they broke in ancient tombs, they were very happy to do this against police and the state.”  

They were also happy to put some money in their pockets, in a country where most people survive on $2 a day. And, with the police discredited and practically in hiding, thieves and looters could now sometimes brazenly loot the country’s treasures.

According to Egypt’s Interior Ministry and figures published by the Associated Press, the number of illegal digs has increased by 100 times to a mind boggling 5,697 cases.  Since the revolution, there have been 1,467 cases of illicit trading in antiquities and 130 attempts to smuggle them abroad. Thirty-five people have been killed while looting Egypt’s treasures, including 10 people buried alive just outside the tourist mecca of Luxor.  

Crawling into one of these rabbit holes, while following a prospective looter who had dug 60 feet under his own home, revealed a network of ant trails ending up in a subterranean burial chamber held up by rough hewed column.  But the man, who had painstakingly dug out this ancient site with his own hands, wasn’t concerned by a potential cave in.  He was more afraid of the 'jin' or genies, spirits who he believes still guard ancient treasures.

“If there are any evil spirits or jins here, I read holy verses from the Koran,” he said. "So my protection is provided by God.”