Unreported World: Egypt’s Tomb Raiders

Unreported World is a current affairs series on Channel 4 & a little while ago they did a half-hour programme about damage to antiquities in Egypt. We put off watching it for a while because it was bound to be depressing, and indeed it was.

It was filmed after this summer’s coup where President Morsi was overthrown & it looks at the effect the unrest has had on the ancient sites, and on the livelihoods of those who work in tourism. One of the main strands was talking to two people who make their living offering camel rides at the Giza Pyramids. And since the coup there have been very very few tourists, at the point when they were interviewed it was a couple of weeks since their last customer. Who’d been the first for a while. These two were doing better than some and must’ve had some savings – their camels weren’t starving yet. There was a particularly unpleasant sequence where the reporter (Aidan Hartley) was shown the animals that had starved to death because their owners could no longer afford to buy food for them left lying in the desert. Hartley also talked to the two about their home lives, and visited there – the adult man lived in a fairly small house with his own family, his two brothers & their families, and his sisters. The three men all work in the tourism industry and have had no work for weeks. He’s wondering how he’s going to afford his children’s school fees, and about how that’s going to affect their future. The boy who works with him is only 13, and dropped out of school when he was 8 – he needs to work to support his family, because his father has a degenerative disease. All either of them have ever done for work is offer camel rides, and if the tourists don’t come back they don’t know what they’re going to do or what’s available for them to do. They were very anti-Muslim Brotherhood, who they see as causing the problems.

The other main strand of the programme was about the looting of antiquities that’s been going on since the coup. In many cases this grows out of the lack of tourism and lack of income for people who relied on tourism. Hartley managed to get an interview with someone who is going out into the desert to dig things up to sell, and he was explaining that he did know it was robbing from the future and that it was wrong but he saw no other way to earn money to get food. Obviously he’s going to be spinning that for what he thinks the Western TV crew want to hear, but we were just shown the dead animals, and other signs of people who are running out of options. But the main focus of that strand of the programme was on an Egyptian archaeologist, Monica Hanna, who is preparing to sue the government for basically allowing the looting to happen She was (at least on camera and officially) talking about the lack of security at the ancient sites and the knock on effects of the curfew in Cairo (ie people who might protect the sites have to be home overnight, but the looters don’t stop for the curfew). However in the interview with the looter he said he bribes the officials who should be looking after the sites to turn a blind eye to what he’s doing – that’s how they’re getting away with bringing bulldozers in, or with sometimes operating in broad daylight.

Hanna took Hartley to several different places to see the sort of damage that was being done. This included a variety of sites where nothing has yet been properly excavated – like the sands around one of the pyramids at Dashur, where it was known there were graves but no-one had dug them up yet. But now the looters have been in with their bulldozers and dug up any antiquities they can find to sell on the black market. Which means we’ll never know what has been stolen, because they didn’t know what was there before. And a lot of potential knowledge about that area is lost forever now the graves have been disturbed. It’s not just the truly ancient sites that are being disturbed – Coptic churches and graveyards from pre-Islamic times have also been disturbed. Rockcut churches have had holes blown in them with dynamite, looking for treasure, murals have been defaced, graves disturbed and grave goods stolen. Hanna said that as well as the looting for things to sell she sees an anti-idolatry strand in what’s going on – she talked about proclamations by religious figures associated with the Muslim Brotherhood which talk about destroying the pyramids or other examples of “idolatrous” sites from “bad religions”.

A thoroughly depressing programme to watch. There aren’t simple answers either – just got to hope the political situation settles down and tourists can come back to revive the economy before too much is destroyed.

Other TV watched this week:

Episode 2 of Tudor Monastery Farm – part re-enactment, part documentary about what life would be like living on and running a farm in 1500.

The Joy of Logic – one off programme about the history of logic and maths, and the birth of computer science. Good, and made me want to re-read Gödel, Escher, Bach again.

Episode 4 of Stories of the Dark Earth: Meet the Ancestors Revisited – Julian Richards returns to digs that were originally filmed for Meet the Ancestors more than a decade ago & sees what new things have been learnt. interseting but padded, as all the other episodes were.

Indie Game: The Movie – film length documentary about indie games, following the development of Super Meat Boy and Fez, and talking to the creator of Braid. Interesting look at the behind scenes of game development at this small scale, did make me wonder why anyone would ever put themselves through that.