Egypt moves to reverse centuries of plundering

July 11, 1995|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Sun Staff Correspondent

VALLEY OF THE KINGS, Egypt -- Archaeologist Kent Weeks crawled on his belly to a doorway at the back of a huge and dark chamber. His lantern beam stabbed into air undisturbed for 3,000 years.

"It was dark and hot, and extremely uncomfortable. The air was filled with dust. It was dead silent," he recalled.

"I expected to find a room, but it was a corridor. I saw door after door, left and right. And in the dim distance, a statue. It was a magical moment."

Dr. Weeks had found a royal tomb corridor that led to a virtual hotel of rooms -- 52 in all. He believes they will offer hidden passage to a lower level of burial vaults of ancient princely mummies, the sons of Pharaoh Ramses II from the 13th century B.C.

Dr. Weeks' spectacular find in February, the first major discovery at the ancient town of Luxor since King Tutankhamen's bejeweled tomb was found in 1922, comes ironically as some experts are calling for a halt in excavations.

Egypt has so many antiquities it can not control them. Priceless objects are being stolen, warehouses and museums looted, and ancient monuments allowed to deteriorate for lack of restoration work.

Egypt has acknowledged it cannot keep track of what already has been found. It is belatedly trying to consolidate the finds kept in 114 warehouses so it can catalog and guard them.

And it has promised to hire new and better guards after a scandal unraveled in Britain in March, in which inspectors of the Egyptian antiquities department allegedly helped smuggle artifacts from ancient tombs at the famous Step Pyramid at Saqqara, 15 miles from Cairo.

"We are replacing guards with people who have education. We want people to understand that we don't want to sell off our history," said Abdul Halim Nur el-Din, secretary-general of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities.

The temptation of theft is great in Egypt, where extreme poverty lives side by side with a wealth of antiquities. And for centuries -- since Roman emperors became enchanted by Egyptian obelisks and took several home -- Egypt has been plundered by outsiders.

In the 1500s there was a flourishing trade in dried mummy flesh, which was ground up and sold as a medicine in Europe. Napoleon Bonaparte took back artifacts from his invasion of Egypt in 1798. One wing of the British Museum is filled with priceless souvenirs of the heyday of exploration in the 1800s and early 1900s, when European gentlemen flocked to Egypt to excavate as a winter sport, carrying their finds back with them.

The world is grudgingly acknowledging those sins, though it is not rushing to return the booty. An international forum of 70 countries in Rome last month adopted rules for the return of stolen or illegally exported antiquities. But it applies only starting this year, effectively pardoning centuries of past thefts.

Egypt was so disappointed in the loopholes that it voted against the final draft, said Zahi Hawass, director of Pyramids at Giza and Egypt's representative to the conference.

"I wanted the rules to go back at least until 1970, if not 1920," he said in an interview in his office in the shadow of the Great Pyramid. "I can't even begin to tell you all the things we've lost since then. Thousands of things."

Dr. Hawass takes his antiquities seriously. He wants Egypt to adopt a law to hang antiquities robbers. And he talks of burying monuments in the sand until they can be properly restored and protected.

The glamour of archaeology is in spectacular discoveries. For years, archaeologists have dug up treasures, then left the uncovered tombs and monuments unprotected from the elements or from theft. Thousands of ancient artifacts disappeared or were hurriedly stashed in warehouses, and were not properly cataloged, much less studied.

Some of the warehouses are "not fit for chickens," said Dr. Nur el-Din. The antiquities were guarded, and sometimes surreptitiously sold, by poorly paid Egyptians.

"You can't have someone earning $30 a month guarding a gold mine," said Dr. Hawass.

In addition to building new warehouses, hiring new guards and increasing the penalty for theft to 25 years imprisonment from the current three years, Dr. Nur el-Din said he would like to stop excavation of antiquities that are not threatened by pollution or development.

"If you have thousands of objects uncovered and you are not able to restore them, why uncover more?" he asked. But he acknowledges the difficulty of turning down archaeology projects proposed and paid for by countries. About 40 percent of the pharonic "digs" are by foreigners.

Dr. Weeks, a professor of Egyptology at American University in Cairo, had been working for nearly three decades at the Valley of the Kings in Luxor, the desolate burial grounds along the Nile for pharaohs of the New Kingdom, who ruled Egypt from 1580 B.C. to 1085 B.C.

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