CAIRO, Egypt—The preservation of antiquities in Egypt has taken great steps since the days that western archaeologists could make off with the best artifacts from their sites. The evolution of Egypt’s protection of its heritage is evident at Saqqara, less than an hour’s drive from downtown Cairo. Saqqara is famous for its step pyramid, the oldest pyramid in Egypt, as well as for its role as part of the necropolis of the ancient city of Memphis.
Archaeologists have excavated at the “City of the Dead” for decades, as the thousands of tombs mean a dig cannot miss. The only way for a dig at Saqqara to fail to find a new tomb or make a similar discovery, it seems, is to be shut down by the authorities. The Louvre’s excavation was suspended in 2009 after the Paris museum refused to return artifacts from a different site back to Egypt. Such a development would have been unheard-of in the earlier days of archaeology mythicized by Indiana Jones.
Egypt faces an increasingly difficult task in asserting its authority over its archaeological sites. The attempted repatriation of Egypt’s artifacts abroad will continue for the foreseeable future, and the country may find it necessary to repeatedly use the threat of suspending excavations for leverage.
Against the backdrop of these nationwide efforts, however, is the truth on the ground. When I recently visited the tombs of Saqqara, the guard informed my group access to the underground burial chambers, thousands of years old, was impossible. For baksheesh equivalent to a couple of U.S. dollars, however, visitors can enter the tombs, take any manner of flash photography, and even climb into a sarcophagus. The protection of Egypt’s antiquities at Saqqara may be improving on the macro level, but no one has bothered to tell the guards.
Alexander R. Konrad ’11, a former Crimson associate editorial editor, is a history concentrator in Quincy House.