Political conflicts in Cairo, and the civil war that broke out in Syria in 2011, between rebel groups and President Bashar Assad’s forces, have inflicted heavy damage on the countries’ cultural heritage. There have already been instances of irreparable destruction of several cultural properties, and many others are at risk. Besides military attacks, “sideline damages” – the growing trade in illicit antiquities – is believed to have absorbed thousands of objects looted from museums and archaeological sites.
Since President Morsi’s military overthrow on July 3, 600 people have been reported killed. They were mostly Muslim Brotherhood supporters, as well as several backers of General Abdel al-Sisi, Egypt’s new strongman.
The Rabaa El Adawya and El-Fathal mosques in Cairo became the epicentre of clashes. The first was burnt down. The second was the theatre of a police raid, which rounded up hundreds of supporters of the country’s ousted president who had sought refuge there. The heavy exchange of gunfire caused massive devastation.
The damage inflicted on the monuments located outside the capital is more difficult to quantify. According to Father Rafic Greiche, spokesman of the Catholic Bishops of Egypt, “Among the 58 churches attacked, 14 are Catholic – he said – while the rest are Anglican or Protestant churches, or belong to the Coptic-Orthodox and Greek-Orthodox communities. Attacks against churches spread throughout the country, though they were mostly concentrated in the Al Minya and Assiut areas.”
The attack against the Museum of Mallauy, a city in Middle Egypt located a few kilometres south of the Antinoe, Ashmunein, and Tuna el Gebel archaeological sites, was one of the most devastating. The Museum was looted on August 14, during a Muslim Brotherhood demonstration. The militants stole over one thousand artefacts, damaged sculptures, and uncovered and overturned sarcophaguses.
UNESCO’s Director-General, Irina Bokova, has said the loss of the pieces stolen at the Mallauy Museum is inestimable, not only in financial or scientific terms, but because they represent the Egyptian people’s history and cultural identity. The Museum of Mallauy was established in the early sixties of last century. It is home to an extensive collection of finds from the ancient city of Hermopolis, which takes its name from Hermes, whom the Greeks identified with god Thoth. Hermopolis was Thoth’s main cult centre. According to myth, Thoth created the manifest universe using the power of language and song. His song created the eight deities of the Ogdoad, in four pairs of males and females. Thoth was originally a moon god, he was often represented as a man with an ibis or a baboon head. Many of the pieces stolen at the Museum are in fact ibis and baboon effigies and mummies.
The looting at the Mallauy Museum was a striking and dramatic episode that fits in with a state of lawlessness and disorder. Over the past few months the number of illegal excavation reports has increased enormously. The so-called “grave robbers” and professional robbers are invading many protected areas in Egypt.
UNESCO warns over Syria heritage
UNESCO has recently added six ancient sites in Syria to the list of endangered World Heritage sites. The decision followed the clashes between the army and rebels in the region around the Crac de Chevaliers area, 38 km from Homs. Concern has risen, after the escalation of violence and fighting since last May, over the ancient crusader fortress’ destiny, the only one left intact of those built by the crusaders in the region.
For the time being, it is difficult to assess the full extent of the damage, but the risk is still high.
The other Syrian sites in the endangered World Heritage list are: the Fortress of Saladin, the Roman city of Palmyra, once called the “Bride of the Desert”, the citadels of Aleppo and Hama, and some ancient villages in the northern part of the country dating back to late antiquity and the Byzantine era. During fighting, Old Homs was razed to the ground, and so were the two most important museums, several Christian churches, and many Ottoman mosques.
Aleppo, also called the “gray”, is one of the oldest cities in the world. In 1986 UNESCO declared the Old City of Aleppo a World Heritage Site, later, in 2006, it was declared the “capital of Islamic culture”. The Great Mosque, at the heart of the Old City of Aleppo, was founded by the Umayyad dynasty in 715 on the site of a Byzantine church. The mosque had to be rebuilt after being damaged by a fire in 1159, and again following the Mongol invasion in 1260. The oldest surviving part was the minaret, which dated back to 1090. Aleppo’s Umayyad Mosque collapsed during clashes between Syrian rebels and forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.
The suspension bridge over the Euphrates in the city of Deir Ezzor, has also been destroyed. It was another “monument symbol” of the nation. Built by French engineers in 1927 during the French League of Nations mandate (1920-1946), the bridge was portrayed on some Syrian banknotes. It is still unclear how the bridge was destroyed. Apparently it was bombed by Assad regime forces. Armed clashes are not the only threat to Syrian antiquities.
Violence, disorder and uncertainty have spawned looting and illicit excavations. At least 12 museums are reported to have been robbed, and so have many archaeological sites. The city of Ebla is an emblematic example. Ebla, located near Tell Mardikh, about 60 kilometres south-west of Aleppo, was the commercial capital of a kingdom dating back to the Bronze Age. Excavations have revealed a large city with temples, sacred places, and tombs. A “tempting site” for grave robbers, considering that in the tombs, corpses were often buried with jewels and small statues. The site, however, is famous for its royal library, not its tombs. In 1975, 17,000 pieces of whole or nearly whole clay tablets with impressed cuneiform writing were found. They document administrative, economic, religious, historical, judicial texts, as well as letters and treaties. Excavations in Ebla have gone on for decades, but most of the site still remains unexplored today. The civil war is threatening this treasure, too. (Albert Lescost)