Egypt’s heritage still at risk, one year later

Feb 12, 2012

In early 2011, governments across the Arab world found themselves threatened by their citizens in a series of revolutions which the world has come to know as the Arab Spring. What began as grassroots social activism blossomed into radical transformations, toppling several infamous and long-standing regimes, and putting immense pressure on others, as social networking and media services morphed from social thermometers into tools themselves, forming a collective consciousness from which powerful changes could be effected by little more than the will of the citizens themselves.

One year on, and many of the situations are far from resolution, with unrest still simmering in certain areas and with many critical of the time it has taken some of the transitional governments to begin the elective process – it may well take another year before we can accurately measure the success or failure of the Arab Spring.

Among the many untold stories of the Arab Spring are the exploits of the custodians of the prolific collections of historic objects and places scattered throughout North Africa and the Middle East.

Egypt, in particular, is renowned for the scale and significance of the heritage it possesses.

Ever since the dawn of the revolution, there has been a marked risk to Egyptian heritage from looters and collateral damage, as one would expect. What makes the situation remarkable is the way in which ordinary Egyptians have banded together to protect their history. From forming human chains around sensitive areas to the rapid mobilisation of conservators to emergency situations, the level of damage was regrettable, as any loss of heritage should be, but far from being as severe as it had the potential to be.

In addition, UNESCO responded to the situation early last year, sending emergency assistance to the various museums across Egypt, followed by two damage assessment teams who would inform any subsequent measures to be taken.

Despite a few thefts, most heritage organisations have survived the revolution and are relatively intact. The problem, however, is swiftly becoming a matter of how to ensure the future survival of these collections.

With unrest over the slow pace of electoral processes still keeping tourists away and the government itself in turmoil, uncertainty over income is driving Egyptians to desperate measures, and with the museums themselves wrestle with funding issues, it leaves Egyptian heritage facing a tenuous future.

A further issue is that several international museums and collectors have used the revolution as ammunition in the continuing fight over object repatriation, citing the danger to the objects were they to be returned to their countries of origin.

Egypt's heritage has survived much so far, and with continued international support, it may well survive much more. The future, unfortunately, is fraught with difficulty – and Egypt needs all the help it can get.

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