When one asks Tarek Sayed Tawfik about the centuries of theft of Egypt’s historical treasures, he becomes visibly angry.
“We are not encouraging anybody to continue stealing Egyptian objects,” declares the general director of the Grand Egyptian Museum, which is set to open at the beginning of 2018. “In spite of it being difficult and agony to retrieve objects, and it’s not cheap and it takes time. But … anybody who in an illicit way tries to take objects out of Egypt will be prosecuted.”
The Root was in Egypt as part of a media delegation sponsored by the American Chamber of Commerce in Egypt. According to Egypt’s Ministry of State for Antiquities, the North African nation’s archeological treasures—some of which include mummies and sarcophagi that are thousands of years old—have been targeted by looters since around 1800.
There are laws in place aimed at preventing the theft of the historical objects, including the 1970 UNESCO Convention requiring the repatriation of objects illegally removed from many countries. But Shaaban Abdel Gawad, general supervisor of the Antiquities Repatriation Department, says the problem has gotten worse because of both the 2011 revolution in Egypt and the ongoing battle against the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS.
“It’s still a big problem now,” says Abdel Gawad. “One of the main sources of money for ISIS terrorists is from monuments. We had a conference in Jordan, showing us that in Syria and Iraq, ISIS has been destroying the monuments. It brings money to them, and it is used to buy guns … and do terrorist actions like in France.”
In May 2015, Egypt hosted an international conference to discuss ways to stop terrorists from profiting from cultural history. The Embassy of Egypt in Washington, D.C., issued a fact sheet (pdf) noting that artifacts smuggled out from war zones around the world account for $2.2 billion a year in illicit global trading.
On top of that, Abdel Gawad says that because the new Egypt is being built atop the old Egypt, where legitimate discoveries are still being made, the construction opens up opportunities for the unscrupulous.
“You can imagine most of the land of Egypt is covered by monuments,” he explains. “Some build a house and can dig inside their house, and when they start to discover something, they can sell it illegally and send it out of Egypt …and we can’t find it. The big problem we are facing is that we don’t have a recording of this object because of the illicit digging and there’s no description of it.”
Another problem is that stolen or illegally excavated objects with false documentation sometimes turn up in auction houses and museums, which makes it difficult to have them repatriated back to Egypt.
“It’s washing monuments like washing money,” Abdel Gawad explains.
But Egypt is fighting back, with increased security, as well as political and diplomatic efforts to retrieve priceless objects that have been stolen and are often displayed outside of its borders. The Ministry of State for Antiquities has a team that scours the web for objects illicitly for sale online and at auction houses and seeks to stop the sale and check for certification.
“If an auction house doesn’t have certification, it must be stolen from Egypt,” Abdel Gawad says. “Some auction houses and museums have started to negotiate with us, and sometimes they can repatriate objects by sending them back to Egypt.”
The nation is also getting help from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Last year at a ceremony in Washington, D.C., U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations unit repatriated dozens of smuggled artifacts to Egypt as part of an ongoing investigation called “Operation Mummy’s Curse.” The probe targeted an international criminal network that illegally trafficked more than 7,000 cultural items from around the world. Some of the repatriated items include a Greco-Roman-style nesting sarcophagus found in a Brooklyn, N.Y., garage in 2009. As of 2015, Immigration and Customs had, since 2007, returned more than 7,800 objects to over 30 nations, including Egypt.
Bryan Lewis, the Homeland Security Investigations country attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, says the investigations leading to recovery of stolen artifacts take time.
“As items go through the process of forfeiture, it takes sometimes several years for them to be repatriated,” Lewis explains. “When it boils down to the appeals process … it can take four to five years and in some cases longer for items to be given back to Egypt. It is a struggle for a foreign office like [Homeland Security Investigations] Cairo, which can get multiple requests from the minister of antiquities, who wants a status update.”
Lewis says that the culprits in these cases aren’t usually museums because they don’t want to be involved with illicit activity. The problem is rich collectors looking for items for their trophy cases.
“They want the item in their showroom to brag about to others. … They will pay an amazing amount of money to display something thousands of years old,” Lewis says. “A sarcophagus that can be three to four thousand years old could be priceless because they’re getting something that’s one of a kind.”
Lewis says the cases are personal for those pursuing the smugglers, particularly for the agents who live in Egypt.
“When you live here, you begin to understand how closely connected the people are to the antiquities,” Lewis explains.
Next month, at the Egyptian Embassy in Washington, D.C., another set of Egyptian antiquities is being repatriated with the help of Homeland Securities Investigations, including a child’s wooden sarcophagus, a linen mummy cover and a mummy’s hand from the eighth century B.C. Lewis says that there were several investigations involved. Some of the funds and antiquities have been traced back to Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Iraq, France and other nations.
The U.S. and Egypt are currently negotiating two memorandums of understanding aimed at increasing protections against the illicit import of Egyptian treasures. But the battle is likely to be ongoing.
“Egyptian antiquities are among the most valuable and sought after in the world,” Lewis says.
Allison Keyes is an award-winning correspondent, host and author. She can be heard on CBS Radio News, among other outlets. Keyes, a former national desk reporter for NPR, has written extensively on race, culture, politics and the arts. Follow her on Twitter.