[W]ithin a kilometre of the Sphinx, I found the desert honeycombed with deep, freshly dug shafts. The criminals are not archaeologists, so they may be digging in vain, but if Egypt’s authorities can’t prevent treasure–hunters from doing this in the shadow of the last of the Seven Wonders of the World, then it’s a safe bet they’re not doing much to stop it elsewhere.
Some of the desecration is spurred on by religious zeal. Before he was deposed, President Morsi appointed as governor of Luxor a former member of Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya, the terrorist group that murdered 64 people in the Temple of Hatsheput in 1997. Under his watch, monuments were neglected, while extreme Islamists began demanding the destruction of pre-Islamic monuments such as the Sphinx and pyramids.
One cleric, Sheikh Murgan Salem al-Gohary, said in a television broadcast aired in Egypt: ‘All Muslims are charged with applying the teachings of Islam to remove such idols, as we did in Afghanistan when we destroyed the Buddha statues…’. Before they had a chance to blow up the Sphinx, the military seized power from the Muslim Brotherhood in June — but the looting escalated even further in the bloodshed that followed.
In August, mobs attacked a museum at Mallawi, in Middle Egypt, and looted 1,000 artefacts. They murdered a curator and vandalised what items they could not steal. Monica Hanna, a young Egyptologist who is struggling to rescue her country’s heritage, rushed to the museum and led efforts to save the few exhibits remaining. She was shot at and menaced and when she asked the vandals what they were doing, the youths replied: ‘This is the property of the state. The state is killing Muslims — so we are destroying what the state owns.’
In September, I accompanied Monica to Ansana, an early Christian complex of rock-hewn churches and ruined monasteries along the Nile. Ansana has never been properly studied, and now Islamists are destroying the sites altogether. In one church, we found 4th-century frescos of biblical scenes freshly scratched to pieces. Looters had tried to blow up one church with dynamite, acting on rumours that hoards of gold were hidden beneath the rock. A cemetery Monica said was for Christians martyred under Roman Emperor Diocletian at the end of the 3rd century had been recently desecrated, and we found piles of skulls and skeletons ripped out of tombs and kicked about the desert.
On one mountainside, Monica found a carved monument marking the boundary of the city of Amana, built by the iconoclastic Pharoah Akhenaten over 3,300 years ago. The vandals who defaced this exquisite work had helpfully recorded the date they did it — in February of this year . . .