GIZA, Egypt—Every morning the “repatriation team” at Egypt’s ministry of antiquities starts the grueling task of going through eBay’s listings to look for stolen ancient artifacts. But it’s like trying to fight back the tide. An archeological catastrophe is taking shape, fueled by the political unrest since the January 2011 revolution, the dire economy, and the relative ease with which tomb-robbers sell their booty on the Web.
Ali Ahmed Ali, head of the repatriation effort, points to a picture on his computer screen of a large limestone block from a tomb, inscribed with hieroglyphics, that was on sale on eBay for $13,500. The seller is in America and has offered no documentation proving that the 1,300-year-old object is owned legitimately.
For an archaeologist or historian the piece could provide “key evidence,” says Ali. “The inscription will identify the period and site of the tomb.” But once it disappears into the cyber marketplace that information is no longer available. “Now it’s lost,” says Ali in despair. He copies and pastes the listing into an ever-expanding dossier of suspected loot.
The items that have recently sold online range from pre-dynastic 4,000 B.C. pottery from Luxor to 2,700-year-old wooden Mummy masks from the Nile Delta. Prices start at around $1,000 for Greek-Roman coins (250 A.D.) and top $25,000 for ornate Sarcophagus lids. The sellers come from all over the world.
Since September last year, when the department started investigating, Ali estimates 450 stolen Egyptian antiquities have been sold on the online marketplace’s global networks.
Monica Hanna, an Egyptian archaeologist fighting to protect Egypt’s heritage sites, believes the number is higher than that. She said since the 2011 revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak, a staggering 4,000 objects have been sold illicitly via the popular website. And the United States is the biggest market.
“If they were legal they would have used proper papers and have sold them through Sotheby’s or Christie’s, where they would get more money,” Hanna told The Daily Beast. Unlike the auction houses, eBay does not require that sellers provide documentation– although the U.S. branch of the website has promised to take down listings flagged by the Egyptian government, and hand over details of about the sellers.
In a desperate bid to save its heritage, Egypt is now demanding the U.S. impose emergency restrictions that could ban trade of all Egyptian objects of cultural value to America. The issue is under discussion with the State Department.
But the looting just keeps getting worse and is now at an all time high, according to Mohamed Abdel-Maqsoud, head of the ministry’s Ancient Egyptian Department.
“At least 2,200 documented artifacts have been stolen since 2011,” Abdel-Maqsoud said. The real number is much higher as many items are stolen from undocumented “virgin” sites.
Altogether, Egypt has lost an estimated $3 billion to the thieving, and the problem grew dramatically worse when looters took advantage of the rioting and disorder that followed the military overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi last July.
Hanna, who launched an awareness campaign on Twitter, paints a frightening picture of the last 10 months of rampages.
The Mallawi National Museum, about 200 miles south of Cairo, was gutted mid-August by gunmen: over a thousand objects were taken; all that was left was broken pottery, shattered glass and charred remains of priceless wooden pieces. A month later, hundreds of artifacts were stolen from a gallery at Mit Rahina, the ancient ruins of Memphis. “It’s out of control,” says Hanna.
Satellite images of Egypt’s artifact-rich areas show a pockmarked landscape where armed gangs and hopeful residents have dug for gold and other loot.
“I did it for my kids,” said Ahmed Sayyed, 25, an illiterate taxi driver and part-time tour guide, as we drove around his neighbourhood, Nazlet El-Semman. It was once a thriving tourist destination at the foot of the iconic Giza Pyramids, but foreigners have stopped visiting Egypt and it is eerily quiet.
Perfume bottles and weathered papyrus replicas gather dust in the grubby window displays of the empty shops. Local vendors practically throw themselves in front of the commuter traffic, imploring passengers to take horse rides.
Sayyed, a father of three, dreams of owning his own house, funded by stealing artifacts. “Everybody does it. There are no jobs, no money after the revolution,” he says.
Sayyed, who never went to school, was one of the laborers hired by organized gangs to loot. He explains that the “sponsors,” big local business families, come into towns like his and hire unemployed residents for 100LE ($14) to 300LE ($42) per day to dig, often on land they own.
Sayyed was sent to the Nile Delta’s Sharqiya, an area rich in undiscovered artifacts, where he was given a hardhat and pickaxe and told to dig a 4-meter hole.
“A group of eight of us dug all day and all night. The sponsors had bodyguards with Kalashnikovs,” Sayyed told. The diggers are always accompanied by a local sheikh, who takes 20 per cent of the profits and is tasked with “sensing” where the tombs are.
He is also brought to the site to negotiate with the djinn, supernatural beings mentioned in the Qur’an, that the grave-robbers believe guard the tombs.
“The Sheikh spoke to the djinn in the temple to make sure they didn’t hurt us,” Sayyed said. The tomb-raiders are more terrified of the folklore spirits than they are of authorities that might catch them, he added.
But they were unlucky in their endeavours, which Sayyed said was a relief: “If we actually found a temple, I was scared the sponsors would have killed us, to keep it secret,” he said.
His friend Alaa Aly, who used to run camel treks from Nazlet El-Semman, told The Daily Beast that it is a dangerous business as the looters have no experience shoring up the digs. His cousin died in 2009 when an illegally excavated archaeological site collapsed on top of him. “It took four days to dig his body up,” Aly said.
Since 2011, at least 20 children have perished while digging, according to Hanna.
“Salma,” a 50-year-old Cairene, used to work connecting “finders” of ancient artifacts with buyers, who then got the items out of the country and often sold them online.
She described shady deals brokered under the watchful eye of heavily armed bodyguards, where both sides would bring well-paid archaeological experts to the negotiations to fight over the value of the pieces.
The business stretches as far the top echelons of government, she said.
“Across the country the big families coordinate with main offices in the capital who have contacts in the security forces, with diplomats and the ministries and can get the items out of the country,” Salma continued.
Members of the Mubarak family allegedly were involved in the trade, she claimed, together with big names in the Mubarak-era Ministry of State for Antiquities.
The goods are smuggled out with raw materials in trucks, via boats, or simply stashed away in personal luggage and flown out, she said.
There is a domestic market for purchasing, but the big money is abroad, particularly in Europe, the Gulf and most recently the Far East.
Website auctions like eBay are only expanding the market possibilities.
EBay in the U.S. told The Daily Beast it investigates any listings “causing concern” and has already taken down over 100 items at the request of the Egyptian embassy in Washington. But the onus is on the Egyptian authorities to locate the illicit sales. And even a high level of cooperation in the United States won’t stop eBay websites outside America, so the sellers will keep posting their loot, and the Cairo team will keep searching.
“For me it is very difficult to see cultural property of Egypt for sale online,” said Ali, scrolling through hundred more listings. “It is like a stab in the heart.”