Hook nose, blue chin, Arab headdress: the tomb robber resembled a villain from a Tintin comic. His friend was packing a big pistol and behind them it was sunset over the pyramids at Dahshur, south of Cairo.
Looting’s been rife in Egypt since antiquity — but there has been an alarming acceleration since the 2011 revolution, and Hook Nose and Big Pistol are in up to their respective necks. I met them as they were about to set off for a night’s work: excavating holes in tombs right up to the foot of the famous Black Pyramid outside Cairo, built around 2,000 bc by a Pharaoh called Amenemhat III. Hook Nose was cock-a-hoop about his profession. ‘The police let me do whatever I want,’ he said. ‘They take their share, so I’m not worried about being arrested… All eat from the same hand. It’s a circle.’
Found anything good recently? ‘Yes! Three wooden sarcophagi with gilded linen wrappings. The mummies had necklaces and beads on their chests and a collection of scarabs and amulets.’ Hook Nose was delighted.
It’s not just Cairo — this is going on all over Egypt. Under the cover of political turmoil, a new wave of tomb raiders are using high-tech equipment to detect tombs and other sites beneath the sands, which they then excavate using heavy machinery. They sell the finds to private collectors abroad, in London or Dubai.
At the Sphinx and the pyramids at Giza, built around 4,500 years ago, the Sound and Light show still blares out to rows of empty chairs: ‘You have come tonight to the most celebrated and fabulous place in the world. Here on the plateau of Giza stands for ever the mightiest of human achievements…’
But within a kilometre of the Sphinx, I found the desert honeycombed with deep, freshly dug shafts. The criminals are not archaeologists, so they may be digging in vain, but if Egypt’s authorities can’t prevent treasure--hunters from doing this in the shadow of the last of the Seven Wonders of the World, then it’s a safe bet they’re not doing much to stop it elsewhere.
Some of the desecration is spurred on by religious zeal. Before he was deposed, President Morsi appointed as governor of Luxor a former member of Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya, the terrorist group that murdered 64 people in the Temple of Hatsheput in 1997. Under his watch, monuments were neglected, while extreme Islamists began demanding the destruction of pre-Islamic monuments such as the Sphinx and pyramids.
One cleric, Sheikh Murgan Salem al-Gohary, said in a television broadcast aired in Egypt: ‘All Muslims are charged with applying the teachings of Islam to remove such idols, as we did in Afghanistan when we destroyed the Buddha statues…’. Before they had a chance to blow up the Sphinx, the military seized power from the Muslim Brotherhood in June — but the looting escalated even further in the bloodshed that followed.
In August, mobs attacked a museum at Mallawi, in Middle Egypt, and looted 1,000 artefacts. They murdered a curator and vandalised what items they could not steal. Monica Hanna, a young Egyptologist who is struggling to rescue her country’s heritage, rushed to the museum and led efforts to save the few exhibits remaining. She was shot at and menaced and when she asked the vandals what they were doing, the youths replied: ‘This is the property of the state. The state is killing Muslims — so we are destroying what the state owns.’
In September, I accompanied Monica to Ansana, an early Christian complex of rock-hewn churches and ruined monasteries along the Nile. Ansana has never been properly studied, and now Islamists are destroying the sites altogether.
In one church, we found 4th-century frescos of biblical scenes freshly scratched to pieces. Looters had tried to blow up one church with dynamite, acting on rumours that hoards of gold were hidden beneath the rock. A cemetery Monica said was for Christians martyred under Roman Emperor Diocletian at the end of the 3rd century had been recently desecrated, and we found piles of skulls and skeletons ripped out of tombs and kicked about the desert.
On one mountainside, Monica found a carved monument marking the boundary of the city of Amana, built by the iconoclastic Pharoah Akhenaten over 3,300 years ago. The vandals who defaced this exquisite work had helpfully recorded the date they did it — in February of this year.
Millions of other Egyptians whose livelihoods have depended on their country’s ancient culture are suffering. In Giza, for generations, families have made a living out of taking tourists around the pyramids on horse or camel rides. It is a memorable experience. The Egyptians touting for business never, ever leave you alone — but it’s also breathtaking to be able to ride around the famous pyramids.
Locals told me that on a normal day, back in the good old days, 10,000 tourists visited the pyramids daily. While I was there the people at the ticket office claimed only ten visitors had paid for entry that day and a fellow trying to sell me various bits of tat sincerely burst into tears when I purchased a handful of postcards.
It was tragic. But worse was to come. Towards twilight, near the stretch of dunes where I found the looters’ holes dug into the desert, within sight of the pyramids, a local camel rider showed me dozens of dead horses. Families in Giza have between 5,000 and 6,000 horses working in the tourism trade. In the boom times, these animals are sorely mistreated, filled up with sugar and ridden day and night. But now that the tourism trade has collapsed, the poor horses’ plight is even more ghastly: slow starvation.
At the edge of Giza I found a sanctuary for horses that was set up by a Marte Kjoell, a Norwegian woman who originally arrived in Egypt hoping to improve on her skills as a belly dancer. Instead she found herself rescuing sick and dying horses in Giza and she now she has 71 resident animals in a makeshift stable that takes its name from her original horse (see facebook.com/princefluffykareem). When I went to see Marte and her partner Sharif, who run the centre together, there were streams of people bringing in their animals for treatment and fodder.
‘You have to remember that for every sick horse there is a struggling owner,’ Marte told me. ‘It’s easy to see the saddle sores, the bones and the ribs but it is not easy to see the owners who have no idea where they are going to get food tomorrow.’ Only the tomb raiders thrive in post-revolution Egypt.