National Geographic : 2016 Jun
66 national geographic • june 2016 intersection, a truck cut off their pursuers and they escaped. When we climb out of the tomb, the guards are scanning the neighboring fields and houses, assault rifles ready. Farag explains that local villagers feel no bond with ancient Egyptian culture and pillage their past in order to survive in the present. Poor residents of many archaeo- logically rich countries think this way, working as low-paid “subsistence diggers.” Looting increased after the 2011 revolution, when government security forces melted away. But Parcak’s satellite analysis indicates that a major spike had already occurred two years ear- lier, when the global financial crisis battered the Egyptian economy, driving up food and gas prices and unemployment. Some jobless people turned to looting to survive. The guards escort us to the highway, and Farag shakes my hand a long time. “Get off the roads by dark,” she says. This still feels like a revolution. DIGGING UP THE PAST for profit has been a profession for thousands of years. The earliest known trial of looters in Egypt took place in Thebes in 1113 B.C. A gang of looters led by an enterprising quarryman named Amenpanefer pillaged rock-cut tombs. The quarryman and his accomplices were convicted and probably executed by impalement. Invading armies also have carried off Egypt’s antiquities. Roman conquerors sent entire obe- lisks back home in purpose-built ships. From the 16th through the mid-20th centuries, when Egypt was dominated by foreign powers, countless pieces of its past were sent to cultural centers abroad by means of gift, trade, and co- ercion. Foreign archaeologists received a por- tion of the artifacts found in their excavations through an official arrangement with Egyptian authorities known as partage, from the French for “sharing.” Travelers bought antiquities from licensed dealers in Cairo, Luxor, and elsewhere. Such transactions often went undocumented, because antiquities were widely considered personal possessions. Though laws already existed to protect antiquities, the modern con- cepts of cultural property—and looting—were still evolving. Change in Egypt and beyond began in the 1950s, as colonial empires dissolved and former subject countries gained self-rule. Inspired by a new sense of national identity, many countries strengthened existing laws or enacted new ones to protect their past, which included still buried artifacts. In 1983 Egypt declared that all items of cultural significance and over a century old belonged to the state. In 1970 UNESCO adopted the Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, which to date 131 countries have signed. Twenty miles north of Abu Sir, I meet Mo- hammed Youssef, director of the rich Middle Kingdom sites of Lisht and Dahshur. In the chaotic months after the revolution of January 2011, gangs of looters ravaged the sites, some- times using earthmovers and digging at night under floodlights. Youssef shows me the rock-cut tomb where, soon after the revolution began, he and one of his inspectors rescued two magnificent lime- stone reliefs stripped from another tomb. Two groups armed with machine guns were arguing over the reliefs. “ When we approached, they shot their guns in the air. They weren’t afraid of us at all,” Youssef remembers. His team re- turned when the gunmen were gone, however, and recovered the reliefs. Might makes right in unstable areas, especial- ly in wartime. During the Cambodian civil war, the Khmer Rouge and other military groups of- ten controlled looters working in their territory. Likewise in Syria today, ISIS takes a cut of loot- ing profits, but so do groups affiliated with the armies of President Bashar al Assad, the Kurdish YPG, and the opposition. Youssef says important locals play a key role in Lisht and Dahshur. “There are very well known people involved in the looting. They are wealthy, prominent, untouchable.” One family in a nearby village, Youssef says, commands a large private militia.