A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, April 20, 2015

Sometimes it isn't ISIS that Destroys Ancient Heritage Sites; Sometimes it's the Ministry of Antiquities

April 18 was World Heritage Day. Earlier last week, it was learned that a Hellenistic Theater complex in Alexandria, the Masrah al-‘Abd, only discovered by archaeologists in 2013, and including adjacent tombs had been obliterated with no trace remaining and with the archaeologists who excavated the site not warned in advance.

A preservationist group called the Egypt's Heritage Task Force (الحملة المجتمعية للرقابة على التراث والأثار) had lobbied against the demolition and protested its being done without warning. The photos here are theirs, and they're the "before" photos. "After" is just a hole in the ground.

Another radical jihadist group like ISIS or the Taliban, trying to erase the pre-Islamic past? A predatory developer? No, it was the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities.

While it's drawn some press coverage and some blog comment, the Ministry has said the site was destabilizing neighboring buildings (how? It's been there 2000 years) and besides, it duplicated finds found elsewhere. So they are selling it to a private developer. As Zeinobia notes in the link, won't construction of a new building destabilize the neighborhood even more?

Now I realize full well the necessary role of rescue archaeology when ancient sites are found under modern cities. Sometimes you're building a parking lot in Leicester and accidentally dig up King Richard III, as happened not long ago. At least they reburied his bones with honors and didn't just pave them over.  Many countries require potential developers to pay for the cost of full archaeological surveys and excavation, with full photography, before allowing development to proceed. Perhaps the theater has been fully and professionally surveyed and recorded, though two years after discovery seems quick by archaeological standards. Given some of the allegations about development at Saqqara, Meydum, and elsewhere since 2011, it's natural to suspect that greed may have outpaced preservation here.

That's unfortunate in a country that, when the High Dam threatened to drown the great temple at Abu Simbel under the waters of Lake Nasser, Egypt worked with UNESCO and international donors to raise the entire temple complex above the lake, in one of the greatest engineering feats in Egypt since the Pyramids. (The Temple of Philae and other sites were also saved.)

If I learn that the site was in fact fully documented and recorded, I'll gladly stand corrected.

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