Egypt will pay a steep price for shunning its ancient history
Smuggling antiquities seems to be one of the most profitable illegal businesses worldwide. Egypt possesses millions of highly valuable and universally admired artifacts, and has always had a smuggling problem.
The current tendency to favor government megaprojects while overlooking the importance of ancient Egyptian antiquities to the development of our country has encouraged many to engage in the illicit trafficking of antiquities, a practice that has been increasing substantially, especially in the last few years.
Apparently, Egypt is sitting on a treasure trove of precious antiquities — those that are housed in our museums seem to be only a fraction of what lies beneath our land. The illegal excavation of antiquities is happening in many parts of the country, with a relatively high success rate. Meanwhile, as it focuses on projects that might help to feed citizens in the future, the government is paying less attention to protecting and promoting our antiquities which, if better managed, could provide us with more revenue today.
Known as the “city of a thousand minarets,” Cairo contains a large number of recognized historical mosques, many of which are spiritually associated with millions of Muslims around the world. The same goes for our churches; the “Hanging Church” and the “Cave Church” are internationally renowned. The areas around these places of worship only need tidying up to make them more appealing to visitors. Yet the government recently constructed the largest mosque and church in Egypt, in the new, relatively uninhabited administrative capital.
The Italian government’s recent discovery of 23,000 ancient Egyptian artifacts concealed in a diplomatic container truly shocked Egyptians. The great number of artifacts, along with the “official medium” used for smuggling them, made it obvious that the illegal trafficking of antiquities is a well-organized and powerful business in Egypt. Had it not been for the Italian government’s seizure of the container, those ancient pieces would be for sale on the black market today.
The recent partial opening of the Grand Egyptian Museum, which cost about $1 billion (funded by the Japan International Cooperation Agency) was a historic move by Egypt to provide a proper home for 100,000 ancient Egyptian artifacts. However, the government, which was not even able to produce an attractive logo for the museum, is still searching for a suitable company to manage and run it — a task that should have been completed prior to the inauguration of the museum.
Many nations whose antiquities are certainly less valuable than ours are significantly more knowledgeable about the protection and promotion of antiquities than we are. Egypt needs to assign these nations as the caretakers of our antiquities to better display them to international visitors.
The Egyptian government applies a double-standard pricing policy to museum and temple visitors: Foreigners are charged an “international” entry fee that must be paid in hard currency, while Egyptians pay very modest fees in the local currency. This pricing policy could induce Egyptian citizens to underestimate the value of their antiques. The government should consider offering Egyptians a single, once-in-a-lifetime free entry ticket to museums to enable them to learn about their history. Citizens who value ancient antiquities should then be required to pay the international fees for any subsequent visits to museums or historic sites.
Our government has still not provided proper professional management for the astonishing monuments and artifacts built by the pharaohs thousands of years ago — this kind of shunning of our history has prompted several nations to falsely claim that the ancient civilization of the pharaohs does not belong to us. Minimal effort is needed to better protect and promote our ancient history, which could potentially generate billions in revenues. Instead, we have entrusted the management of our most valuable antiquities to a handful of bureaucrats, some of whom are engaged in smuggling.
The Egyptian government needs to be extremely firm with antiquities smugglers. This is more a matter of enforcing existing laws than promulgating new ones. Many nations whose antiquities are certainly less valuable than ours are significantly more knowledgeable about the protection and promotion of antiquities than we are. Egypt needs to assign these nations as the caretakers of our antiquities to better display them to international visitors.
• Mohammed Nosseir, a liberal politician from Egypt, is a strong advocate of political participation and economic freedom.