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A child carrying an artifact at the cemetery.

Silent Victims of Grave Robbers: Children and Mummies Suffer from Extensive Looting in Egypt


The ancient Egyptian civilization lasted for a few millennia. The people who created the unforgettable culture are now buried in the sands of the desert. The number of cemeteries they left behind is huge, and all of them are in danger of looters. The ancient graves do not just hold the remains of people from long ago, however, more and more victims are added to the graveyards every year.

A report published by Live Science says that more than 25 children employed by antiquities gangs died in 2015 in the shafts in Abusir el-Malek. The children were forced to work in very dangerous conditions. But this is not a unique case - it has been happening on a large scale since 2011, when the Egyptian revolution changed the economy of Egypt and people started to search for different ways to earn money. It is unknown how many children have died during the last five years.

Piles of human bones in Abusir el-Malek cemetery.

Piles of human bones in Abusir el-Malek cemetery. (Egypt’s Heritage Task Force)

The situation in Egypt is very complicated and distressing as many lives are lost. For example, two antiquities guards - Mustafa Ali, 36, and Asrawy, 56, who tried to protect ancient sites were gunned down by thieves scoping out tombs. They were murdered on February 20, 2016.

Apart from the losses of human life, the tombs are not only looted, but also damaged. Mummies have been left out in the sun and completely robbed of their treasures. It is also impossible to count how many ancient remains became victims of these horrific practices.

A close-up of a mummy's head at the Bahariya Oasis.

A close-up of a mummy's head at the Bahariya Oasis. (Egypt’s Heritage Task Force)

Pictures presented by Egypt's Heritage Task Force show children who work in the village Abusir el-Malek, located to the south of Cairo. The photos present the children who carry artifacts and work around the pits and shafts. They search for treasures between the bones of the ancient mummies. It all happens without any respect to the burials and with a huge risk to the children’s lives. According to Monica Hanna, an Egyptologist working with Egypt's Heritage Task Force: “Children have been used primarily to reach small burial shafts and tunnels. Unfortunately, many children have lost their lives in the process.”

Hanna suggests that very little money from the sale of artifacts goes to the children or their families. Most of the profits go to the antiquities dealers and the middlemen who smuggle the artifacts out of Egypt. Monica Hanna described the difficult situation, which has taken place in Egypt since 2011, in a paper published in the book “ Countering Illicit Traffic in Cultural Goods” (ICOM, 2015).

Two children in the looted cemetery at Abusir el-Malek, Egypt.

Two children in the looted cemetery at Abusir el-Malek, Egypt. (Egypt’s Heritage Task Force)

As Hanna told Live Science, the buyers of Egyptian antiquities should know that:

 "the object you buy does not only have a child's blood on it, but also [that] looting activities have completely destroyed the site similarly to what ISIS does to other archaeological sites in the region."

According to documents from the US Census Bureau presented by Live Science, more than $143 million worth of artifacts had been exported from Egypt to the United States. They have been sold to private collectors, not to be displayed in a museum. Some of the artifacts were sold at auction houses, art galleries, etc. It is believed that more than 20 kilograms (44.09 lbs.) of ancient gold have been smuggled to USA from Egypt since 2011. This is a huge increase compared to the period from 1998 and 2010, when it was less than 2 kilograms (4.41 lbs.) During the first five months of 2016, artifacts worth about 26 million dollars were exported from Egypt to the USA.

An illegally excavated object someone tried to sell on eBay.

An illegally excavated object someone tried to sell on eBay. (Egypt’s Heritage Task Force)

The damage done by the looters seems to be even worse than what took place during the massive excavations in the 19th century. Although it was believed that the security system was strong enough to avoid the stealing of artifacts and smuggling of them abroad, these acts are very common.

Moreover, it is almost impossible to prove any single artifact that arrives in the US has come from a looted site. The US customs don't check all shipments and the middlemen make the antiquities look like they are a part of the legitimate market. The artifacts arrive to the USA clean and restored and packed in with forged paperwork that makes it seem like Egyptians gave permission for their export.

Monica Hanna has been awarded by many different institutions for her work. One of them, the SAFE Beacon Award, was received for her exemplary efforts in shedding light on the looting situation in Egypt. Hanna was given this acknowledgement in 2013, when she was already famous for her fight to protect the ancient Egyptian sites. Hanna is a voice of the ancient Egyptians - she risks her life to save the heritage of the country near the Nile.

Monica Hanna.

Monica Hanna. (Monznomad/Twitter)

Top Image: A child carrying an artifact at the cemetery. Source: Egypt’s Heritage Task Force

By Natalia Klimczak



Natalia Klimczak is an historian, journalist and writer and is currently a Ph.D. Candidate at the Faculty of Languages, University of Gdansk. Natalia does research in Narratology, Historiography, History of Galicia (Spain) and Ancient History of Egypt, Rome and Celts. She... Read More

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