eBay’s Egyptian Tomb Robbers

Bel Trew

GIZA, Egypt—Every morning the repatriation team at Egypt’s antiquities ministry starts the grueling task of going through eBay’s listings to look for new stolen ancient Egyptian artifacts.

“You can see where this panel was broken in three during the illicit digging,” said Ali Ahmed Ali, head of the department, pointing at 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 offered no documentation proving that the 1,300-year-old object is legitimately owned.

“This piece is key evidence, the inscription will identify the period and site of the tomb—now it’s lost,” Ali said in despair. He copies and pastes the listing into an ever-expanding document of suspected loot.

The items that have recently sold online range from priceless pre-dynastic 4,000 B.C.E. Luxor pottery to 2,700-year-old wooden mummy masks from the Nile Delta. Prices start at around $1,000 for Greek-Roman coins (250 C.E.) 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 illicitly sold via the popular website. And the U.S. 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 the Egyptian government flag and handover details of 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. A meeting is scheduled next week with the U.S. Department of State to discuss the sanctions.

In the meantime quick sales on online marketplaces like eBay are only encouraging looting back in Egypt which is at an all time high, Mohamed Abdel-Maqsoud, head of the ministry’s Ancient Egyptian Department said.

“At least 2,200 documented artefacts have been stolen since 2011,” Abdel-Maqsoud said. The real number is much higher as many items are stolen from undocumented “virgin” sites, he added.

In total Egypt has lost an estimated $3 billion to the thieving, a number which is steadily increasing as looters take advantage of the latest wave of riots following the military overthrow of 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, 300km south of Cairo, was gutted mid-August by gunmen: over 1000 objects, many of them yet to be properly studied, were taken. All that was left was broken pottery, shattered glass and charred remains of priceless wooden pieces, she described.

A month later hundreds of artefacts were stolen from a gallery at Mit Rahina, the ancient ruins of Memphis.

“It’s out of control,” Hanna said.

The destructive theft has become so rife that satellite images of Egypt’s artefact-rich areas show a pockmarked landscape where armed gangs and hopeful residents have dug for gold.

“I did it for my kids,” Ahmed Sayyed, 25, an illiterate taxi driver and part-time tour guide told The Daily Beast, as he drove around his neighbourhood Nazlet El-Semman. Once a heaving tourist resort at the foot of the iconic Giza Pyramids, foreigners have stopped visiting Egypt and left it eerily quiet.

Perfume bottles and weathered papyrus replicas gather dust in the grubby windows displays of the empty shops. Local vendors throw themselves in front of the commuter traffic demanding passengers take horse rides.

With no work, Sayyed, a father-of-three, dreamed of owning his own house funded by stealing artefacts. “Everybody does it. There are no jobs, no money after the revolution,” he said.

Sayyed, who never went to school, was one of the laborers hired by organized gangs to loot. He explained 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 artefacts, where he was given a hardhat and pickaxe and told to dig a four-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 Quran, 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 in securing 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, Hanna added.

50-year-old Salma (not her real name) from Cairo used to work as a middleman to connect “finders” of ancient artefacts with buyers, who get the items out of the country and often sell 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.

The family of Mubarak 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 the U.S. But the impetus is on the Egyptian authorities to locate the illicit sales and so the sellers keeping posting.

This also won’t stop what is sold on eBay’s websites outside America, so 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.”

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