New cemetery endangers Egypt's ancient necropolis
The state minister of antiquities Mohammed Ibrahim said in a statement Monday that an order had been issued to remove the construction and the Interior Ministry, in charge of police, had been asked to carry it out. ‘‘The financial resources of the ministry are not enough’’ to protect the sites, it said.
The question is whether it will be implemented. Younes said the military would have to get involved since police have refused to act. He said past requests for orders to remove illegal construction at archaeological sites had been ignored. ‘‘There is no deterrent,’’ he said.
He also worries that the rise of Islamists to power brings a dismissive attitude to pre-Islamic antiquities.
He pointed out that pharaonic treasures — a key part of the country’s identity — are mentioned in the Islamist-drafted constitution only as ‘‘an afterthought,’’ just in terms of maintaining sites. In fact, the constitution doesn’t refer directly to pharaonic sites or Egypt’s ancient civilization at all, making only a vague reference to ‘‘heritage.’’
Some at the construction site said they were sure Islamist President Mohammed Morsi won’t order the removal of the modern cemetery because he was a believer and respects Islam’s ways.
Authorities may be wary of forcibly removing the construction and risking a clash with the villagers, who say they won’t go unless they are given a new site nearby and compensation for what they have already built.
Ehab Eddin el-Haddad, one resident building a burial plot, said removing the tombs would require ‘‘killing these people, and it would mean a return to the old regime ... it would be the return of repression.’’ Nearby, workers slapped together bricks for a new wall and a heavy machine flattened the earth for construction.
The villagers come from a string of nearby farming communities crammed amid the palm groves in the narrow, verdant strip of the Nile Valley, where land is limited as Egypt’s population of 85 million swells. Residents said they were desperate for new space for burial plots, pointing to old family tombs they said were full. Authorities balked at issuing permits for new tombs or demanded exorbitant fees and bribes, several residents said.
‘‘What can people do with their dead? They can’t throw them in the canal,’’ said Ali Orabi, a local farmer. ‘‘There is death and there is birth, these things don’t stop ... You dignify the dead by burying them.’’
El-Haddad said nearby land had been set aside to expand the cemetery but after the revolution it was seized by armed local ‘‘thugs’’ who started building houses on it and selling off plots, a common problem with Egypt’s new lawlessness.
Like many others, he resented the authorities’ concern over antiquities and tourism that the villagers say benefit only rich Egyptians, corrupt officials and foreign archaeologists, with no gains for the poor.
‘‘Where is the gold that came out of this land? All smuggled out,’’ said el-Haddad. ‘‘I'm not waiting for some half-naked foreigner to come take out what she finds in the cemeteries. What do I get out of it? ... I want a place to be buried in.’’
Antiquities theft is believed to be big business in Egypt, fueled by post-revolution chaos, and press reports often accuse local officials of involvement, though few cases have gone to court.
The fear is that looters could also use the construction as cover, even if the villagers are acting out of a legitimate need for land, said Monica Hanna, an independent archaeologist who has worked at Dahshour. Hills nearby are dotted by pits from digs by thieves searching for treasure, mostly from last year.
In the area in general, ‘‘there has been more looting than scientific excavation,’’ Hanna said.
Saleh Mohammed Shafei, a 77-year-old villager, acknowledged that ‘‘there are people who come and dig at night’’ — but said those like him who are building tombs had nothing to do with the thieves.
‘‘Where else would people go’’ with their dead, he said. ‘‘These people are building because they’re forced to. These old tombs are filled, some three layers deep.’’