In last Friday’s episode, Channel 4’s “Unreported World investigates the shocking effects Egypt’s political unrest is having on the country’s tourism industry and the unique archaeological heritage.”
The 25-minute documentary at times portray Emad and Hima, tour guides on camel-back who had not seen business for weeks and whose camels are getting quite lean; at times the programme follows Monica Hanna, an archaeologist tracking looters, vandals and others who are irreversibly damaging Egypt’s, and perhaps the world’s, heritage.
Perhaps the last point is significant: whose heritage is it anyway? In the words of some government officials or locals, it may be: whose burden is it anyway? Egypt seems to lack the political stability, or perhaps money, to do anything. Italy and Greece certainly do not prioritise protecting heritage at a time when it is pressured by debtors and European “partners” to stabilise its economy. Nor is it merely tourism, with Italy and Spain frequently complaining the lack of help it receives towards preventing illegal immigrants from reaching their shore, European Union’s shore.
For Egypt, sites with tourism potential has remained for a long time just that – sites with tourism potential. It is, perhaps, like a low-ranking football team carrying a world-class striker: the striker rarely manages to get the ball anyway, and without the ability to contribute it may as well just leave. Sadly dispensing with the tourist potential do not yield a transfer fee, but loses more of the past that some of us long to preserve.
How can this be balanced though? The Egyptians in Egypt needs to survive, said a looter. Confessing that what he was doing, looting, was bad for future tourism he shuffled his feet and said: “I do this because I have no other option. There’s no work. I need to support my family.” His eyes look out to a distance – no glamour of a tomb raider, just lost on the horizon so easily marked out by the sand in the desert. Can we be accused of caring too much about the past, but not about those who live now?
Well we could do something about it? In Italy’s case, the European Union is directly spending money on The Grand Project in Pompeii. But I do not know of any other examples, save for corporations sponsoring various sites in Rome, with Fendi leading the way at the Trevi Fountains. Nor are such intervention always appreciated by the locals – the money does not remove the fact that there are still those who are not fed. For an editorial commenting on a proposal to dig in the City Centre and display the Roman remains in Exeter, the local Express and Echo gave the piece the title: “Spend money on food for hungry not Exeter Roman remains.”
Of course, we must never overlook the potential for jobs and benefits to the local economy for projects which aim to protect and preserve sites. The Grand Project will need workers; looters can become security guards (as long as the wages at least sustain them, though not perhaps if their buyers offer to pay more). But money seems to be in short supply, be it Egypt, Greece and Italy, be it the UK, Germany. Nor is heritage always a priority “in times like these”.
So what can we do? I remember the footages of the Talibans destroying the huge carvings of Buddhas in Afghanistan and reports of the libraries at Timbuktu being burnt. Thankfully, it seems, in the latter case most writing have survived. In both case there were also intervention. Watching the vandals destroying Coptic caves and digging into tombs in the Channel 4 programme saddened me, as did seeing the families of the tour guides: children running around the house oblivious to the adults’ concerns of how to pay for their schooling, amongst other things to pay for. And then there were the carcasses, not few, of the horses and camels.
The preservation of heritage through the ages depends on a lot of luck. Part of that luck is the interaction the objects had had with many things: the weather, the geography and other things, but fundamentally the people. Yet we the people who values these objects are of the same humankind as the people who are either ignoring or damaging the heritage. The long-term solution for helping the preservation of these artefacts are to help the people who are closest to it, and this requires a lot of time and effort. If the local government is, not so much unable, but unwilling to do it, who is there to step into the breach? And what can we as outsiders do?