By/ Youssef al-Khatib
The antiquities trade is the illegal game of chance that might either lead its perpetrator to vaults of wealth or end their careers and lives in a tragic way. With Egypt housing beneath its grounds a pool of treasures stretching in all directions and extending to all ancient and modern times, many from inside and outside the country (which they enter under the pretense of excavation scientists) give up to their whims in search of excavating these treasures despite the dangers surrounding them.
Officials and businessmen overpowered by the passion to search for antiquities, end up behind prison bars.
How did these artifacts get out of the country? The most notorious smuggling means and hiding them away from the security services across all media: land, sea, and air. Also, who is in charge of the smuggling operations?
It is a global mafia and an international trade. Its villains are men of influence in Egypt and abroad and they have many tricks to smuggle their goods in the hope of winning the lottery.
One of the most famous and safest means of smuggling antiquities is hiding them in diplomatic luggage. The major smugglers resort to some diplomatic personnel who are obsessed with acquiring and selling antiquities to facilitate these operations, whether in exchange for a percentage of the deal’s value, or for even obtaining some of the antiquities.
The present still reminds us of the major antiquities case that was unraveled a few years ago when the Italian authorities were able to seize a lot of artifacts (21,000 pieces smuggled in a diplomatic container belonging to an Italian diplomat.) This was done with the help of the Egyptian smuggler, Raouf Ghali, descendant of a famous family of ministers, the last of whom was the former Minister of Finance.
There are also shipments of furniture in which large and valuable pieces of antiquities are hidden inside. This was the case when the Kuwaiti authorities managed to uncover a huge Pharaonic tomb inside a large wooden sofa.
As for small pieces, they are often smuggled inside ordinary travel bags among clothes. The most famous incident took place in 1980, when the Cairo Airport detectives seized a number of valuable artifacts dating back to 1500 BC with one of the travelers.
As for the strangest cases of smuggling, the owner of an import and export company in the Egyptian coastal city of Damietta put in a large container a large quantity of hookahs, and included statues from the Pharaonic, Greek and Roman eras, and tried to smuggle them for the benefit of businessmen.
The Adventure of Excavation
While the smugglers embark on a difficult and criminal adventure, there are experts in illegal excavation who have grown addicted to taking this risk. They hope to reach the end of the tunnel and pick up a valuable piece to eventually reach the international auction halls or to deliver to wealthy, major collectors of antiquities. The dangerous thing is that Egypt cannot recover these pieces because they are mostly unregistered and were excavated illegally.
Estimates vary about the smuggled or looted antiquities of Egypt. However, official data issued by the concerned ministry and responsible authorities indicate that during the last fifty years, the country has lost about 32,638 antiquities, including what is documented and stolen from various stores and museums across the country. The January 2011 revolution and the chaos that pervaded the country were behind the theft of about 3,000 documented pieces, and the authorities are searching for them.
Aside from this official statistic, experts believe that the actual numbers of smuggled artifacts may be double the announced numbers, as most of the thefts are through illegal excavations.
Experts estimate the number of Egyptian artifacts in museums and among collectors of precious statues at about one million pieces.
Egypt managed between 2010 and 2018 to retrieve 975 artifacts from 10 different eras, all of which were registered and carried internationally proven numbers.
The past few years have also witnessed intensive efforts by the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Antiquities, which resulted in the recovery of a large number of artifacts that were looted from Egyptian museums and warehouses.
Five thousand artifacts were recovered from the USA, which were on display at the Museum of the Bible in Washington. They comprised manuscripts and papyrus with writings in Coptic, hieratic and demotic scripts, manuscripts in Greek, Christian religious prayers in Arabic and Coptic, a couple of heads of stone and bronze statues, and a number of funeral masks.
From London, three illegally smuggled pieces were recovered, which are statues dating back to the Pharaonic and Greek eras. They were offered for sale in an auction hall.
A statue of a priest from the Pharaonic era, Nikaw-Ptah, was recovered which was up for sale in an auction house in the Netherlands.
From Belgium, two statues from the Pharaonic era were recovered, which were up for sale in an auction hall without identification papers of origin.
Israel also handed over 95 artifacts to the Egyptian government that had been smuggled across different time intervals.
From Spain, and after consultations between the two countries’ Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Antiquities in the two countries, Egypt recovered 36 artifacts at the end of last year, most of which were pharaonic stone and bronze statues that were smuggled during 2014 by a businessman in Alexandria.
From France, 114 archaeological pieces were recovered, most notably the statues of Amenhotep III and Horus and another group dating back to different periods of prehistory, the middle and modern Egyptian state, two statues of the gods Bastet and Apis, in addition to pots, pottery pieces and some ornaments.
Deputy of the Jinn and Orcs and Businessmen
Despite the announced penalties and the successive discovery of antiquities’ smuggling gangs, the series of illegal excavations continues. What is strange in recent cases is that most of those involved are actually wealthy men who have commercial establishments or relevant jobs, to the extent that some describe them as addicts of smuggling and adventure that almost takes their lives.
The legal advisor, Dr. Mohamed Bakhit, indicates that the latest amendment to the Egyptian Antiquities Law in Article 41 stipulates that “anyone who stole an antiquity or part of it, whether it was registered or excavated by legal or illegal methods, shall be punished with life imprisonment and a fine of no less than EGP1 million and up to LE10 million, in addition to confiscating the antiquity,” provided that this crime of theft or smuggling is associated with another crime, which is the illegal trafficking of antiquities.
Archaeologists believe that the legal solution alone is not sufficient, and that it is necessary to raise community awareness of the cultural value of antiquities and ancestral heritage, as well as the economic value to the country in terms of tourism. The experts also called for encouraging people to hand over the discovered antiquities or those found by chance to the state in return for financial rewards and other incentives such as invitations to visit internal or external tourist attractions at the expense of the state.
UNESCO also got involved by launching an initiative to return the stolen antiquities to their countries of origin, and allocating rewards for that.
The case that led to the fall of former parliamentarian Alaa Hassanein, who was called “deputy of the jinn and orcs” and his partner, the well-known businessman, Hassan Ratib, was sensational considering the fame of the two involved men.
Deputy Hassanein was a guest on several television programs claiming that he was able to use jinn and orcs to treat diseases, before he partnered with Ratib in the hope of harnessing the jinn to unearth the archaeological treasures hidden in the ground.
The parliamentarian was arrested, along with his brother and 22 others, and in their possession were 201 pieces of antiquities. They were accused of leading the formation of a gang to excavate, steal and hide antiquities in one of their dens in Old Cairo. Ratib, meanwhile, was charged with financing drilling and exploration operations for his partner. The court issued its sentence to imprison Alaa Hassanein and four others for 10 years, and imprison the Ratib for five years.
Zamalek Apartment and Ali Baba Treasure
Coincidence played its role in discovering an important archaeological treasure that contains hundreds, if not thousands, of artifacts from all ages and different eras, manuscripts from artistic paintings to jewelry and valuable collectibles in an apartment in Zamalek. It was an "Ali Baba's Cave" by all means which was opened after a court order following a financial dispute between the heirs of the owner of the apartment and the owner of the property, and led to the discovery the great treasure. The heir of the owner of the apartment confirmed that the contents found are from his ancestors’ heritage, and he has all the documents that prove the ownership by legitimate means. The state has seized the apartment’s belongings and they are under the inspection of experts. It is certain, however, that the contents are a treasure of a value too immense to be counted.
Treasures Under Houses
In the north of the capital Cairo, in Ain Shams area in particular, built on the ruins of Heliopolis, which was considered a scientific epicenter for the country’s capital at that time in the Pharaonic era, eight people were caught digging under a property to excavate antiquities under it, also with the help of a charlatan. When the police raided the property, they found an ancient tomb containing a coffin of a Pharaonic king.
In the same area, three people were arrested in possession of artifacts, a large painting and a number of stone statues of various shapes and sizes, which they found under a house, and they were going to sell them to a merchant.
In Assiut and Sohag, the two southern cities rich in antiquities, a worker was arrested in possession of 54 Pharaonic artifacts that were found when digging under his house. In Sohag, another worker found 30 pieces of pharaonic stone statues while also digging under the wall of a property he owned.
Coincidence also had its role in the discovery of a Roman-era tomb in the archaeological al-Tal area of Sohag, consisting of two rooms, complete with inscriptions and drawings, and containing three mummies. Through a video of a driver, clips and photos of traces appeared inside a cemetery, and after his arrest, he admitted that he and some of his partners found them by chance during an excavation.
One of the funniest cases was what happened in the Nazlet al-Samman area near the Giza pyramids, when two newlyweds took advantage of their wedding night and the noise around their house to excavate 30 artifacts from a tomb that discovered below the house. The joy was not complete, however, as they were arrested and the seizures were confiscated.
Adventures and Endings
If some of the adventurers succeeded in reaching the treasure, there were also those who had bad luck and a tragic ending. Major General Amin Ezz al-Din, former assistant interior minister for Alexandria, believes that many adventurers are taken away by their dreams, or a charlatan deceives them in the hope of reaching an important discovery. Ezz El-Din says: “The great tragedy is that there are many who venture into illegal excavations, the excavations collapse on their heads and they suffocate inside the basements. As for those who survive, they do not find a way to export their goods and get arrested.”
An example of this is what happened in 2009 when four people died while excavating a pharaonic antiquity under a property. They all fell into a hole eight meters deep and then the excavation remnants collapsed on them while they were inside a rocky cavity in an area near the pyramids. In the southern city of Fayoum, three bodies of workers were recovered from a deep pit they fell into while excavating antiquities in a village near Lake Qarun. Two workers in the Old Cairo area dug a seven-meter-deep hole next to the wall of their home and died of suffocation.
International archaeologist Dr. Zahi Hawass believes that the legend of the curse of the pharaohs has protected the antiquities for many years. He points out in his autobiography “The Guardian” that the looted antiquities during the events of the January 2011 revolution mostly returned by chance. One of the incidents he narrated goes as follows:
A 16-year-old boy who was among the demonstrators found the statue of Akhenaten, which is one of the most important monuments of the Egyptian Museum, in a rubbish bin and took it to his home in Maadi, but his family returned the statue.
He also reveal: The Antiquities Inspector Muhammad Abdul Rahman met by chance with one of the demonstrators, who told him that he had found a group of artifacts and wanted to know their value. The inspector called the police and an ambush was prepared. The man was arrested in possession of a large bag full of antiques, which was returned to the museum.
A maintenance supervisor at the Ministry of Antiquities also succeeded in returning a valuable group of antiquities looted in the January events, the most important of which is a statue of Tutankhamun written upon with gold leaf, a wood statue of Tutankhamun and a set of gold and bronze vessels.
The maintenance supervisor said that he was sitting in a cafe next to the Ministry of Culture and overheard an argument among people over their dispute over a group of artifacts stolen from the museum.
Theft of Antiquities on the Screen
Because artifacts smuggling is an ongoing issue, it has not shied away from the screen, whether in films or TV series. The actor Hani Ramzi starred in the movie "Nems Bond" where he played the role of a police officer investigating a murder case that eventually led him to a large gang smuggling antiquities. The series “El Halal Mountain” starring Mahmoud Abdel Aziz, revealed the extent of the addiction of businessmen, despite their wealth and influence, to the illegal work of excavating and smuggling antiquities. Finally, the series “Taye'e” revealed that influential figures in society smuggle antiquities through diplomatic bags and through influential men.