Monica Hanna:At the frontline of protecting antiquities

13-01-2014 06:47 PM

Antoun Milad

For her exemplary efforts in shedding light on the looting of antiquities in Egypt, the Egyptian archaeologist Monica Hanna is the recipient of the 2014 SAFE Beacon Award.

The SAFE Beacon Awards recognises outstanding achievement in raising public awareness about endangered cultural heritage and the devastating consequences of the illicit antiquities trade. Since 2004, awards have been presented to authors, journalists, professors, law enforcement professionals, and archaeologists: 2004 went to Roger Atwood, 2005 Matthew Bogdanos, 2006 Peter Watson and Cecilia Todeschini, 2008 to Neil Brodie and Donny George, 2009 to Colin Renfrew, 2010 Robert Goldman, David Hall, James McAndrew, and Robert Wittman, 2011 to Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino, and the 2012 award went to David Gill. 
Documenting the looting
Hanna graduated from American University in Cairo with a bachelor’s degree in Egyptology and archaeological chemistry, then earned a master##s degree in teaching English, followed by a doctoral degree in archaeological sciences from the University of Pisa, Italy. She is currently doing post-doctoral studies at Humboldt University in Berlin. She did volunteer work with efforts to preserve Egyptian antiquities twice weekly after school; a year later, she helped with mummy restorations. “I helped repair the toes of Thutmose III,” a pharaoh who ruled Egypt nearly 3,500 years ago. 
Hanna documents the looting of antiquities in Egypt and brings it to the attention of government officials and the media. She noticed that foreign archaeologists were reluctant to report theft and damage to the sites where they worked because they were afraid of losing work permits from the Egyptian government, and that antiquities inspectors were often ignored when they reported looting. In addition to assisting others with monitoring archaeological sites, Hanna is part of the effort to develop a website that will allow anyone to report problems anonymously. 
Using social media tools to their fullest potential, Hanna created and steadfastly maintains Egypt’s Heritage Task Force, while also contributing to other social media platforms. She continues to inform about the issue in lectures and interviews, and rallies others to do the same. In fact, it is impossible for anyone truly concerned about the critical situation in Egypt not to be informed by Hanna’s dedicated and diligent reporting. This past August, SAFE intern Beatrice Kelly included a small part of Dr Hanna’s documentation in How much looting needs to happen before we start to think twice?
Increasingly acute
Hanna noted, “Looting antiquities was limited before the 25 January Revolution in 2011, after which however, the security situation in Egypt broke down which encouraged many to plunder antiquities. “There are two kinds of looting-antiquities,” she explains, “the first is by the excavation workers who are hired to dig for something, while the second is by families residing in archaeological sites who themselves undertake to search for antiquities.   
After the security breakdown in Libya too, according to Hanna, antiquities gangs have come to possess advanced firearms, leading to very poor security in 85 per cent of the archaeological sites in Egypt. Law violations and looting peaked. 
Home to some of the world’s oldest civilizations, Egypt has had a profound influence on the cultures of Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. For centuries, Egyptian archaeological sites have been looted, most recently to feed the black market trade of antiquities. Despite valiant calls for recovery, invaluable information about Egypt’s ancient past and humanity’s shared heritage has been irretrievably lost. Since the 2011 revolution, this situation has become increasingly acute.
Erasing Egypt’s identity
“The award is given to raise the awareness in the field of archeology,” Dr Hanna noted, “and this is what we are doing now, we are monitoring violations, talking in the media, and launching campaigns for cleaning archaeological sites, especially those ripe for looting. When the media visits these sites to monitor them, it becomes difficult for the thieves to loot the place. 
“This should work to raise public awareness so that individuals would be the first defence line against the looting of antiquities. Unfortunately, the Antiquities Ministry does not move to protect the antiquities be any means. We have 12,000 security cadres in the police of antiquities, but they are not trained nor qualified to deal with gangs.  In the case of looting Mallawi Museum, there were 20 security men who all fled when the Islamist thugs attacked them.”
“Destroying monuments and antiquities in Egypt,” Hanna stresses, “is a systematic effort aimed at destroying the Egyptian identity. The violations targeting ancient Egyptian, Coptic, Islamic and modern antiquities are destroying the identity of Egypt as a whole. 
“We are proud of our pluralism,” Hanna concluded, “and when it disappears, we face the threat of erasing the identity of the country.”
Watani International
13 January 2014
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