The economic crisis in Egypt has caused a revival of the plundering of the country’s heritage with illegal diggings occurring around the pyramids.

Australian Broadcasting Corporation

Broadcast: 15/04/2013

Reporter: Matt Brown

Watch the video below:


EMMA ALBERICI, PRESENTER: The long-running crisis in Egypt is taking a toll well beyond riots and political instability. Egypt’s archaeological heritage is being plundered as illegal digging escalates around the ancient pyramids and the country’s Treasury is being starved of funds as the tourism industry continues to struggle. Middle East correspondent Matt Brown reports from Cairo.

MATT BROWN, REPORTER: Egypt’s ancient treasures tower above the desert and a wealth of artefacts still lies below the sand. But amidst two years of chaos, new life has been given to an age-old scourge: tomb raiders.

OSAMA AL-SHIMI, ARCHEOLOGIST: We are very sad. It’s a very bad thing for us. And our heart, my heart and the heart of anyone who works in our field is a broken heart.

MATT BROWN: Broken heart?

OSAMA AL-SHIMI: Broken heart.

MATT BROWN: Dr Osama al-Shimi has been working this ground for decades. He says the problem of illegal digging is worse than ever because of the security vacuum that followed the fall of the dictator Hosni Mubarak.

OSAMA AL-SHIMI: Usually after revolution in the history, in all the world, you find something like this. There is no good security after revolution.

MATT BROWN: While they don’t contain gold, the tombs could hold less lustrous riches, vital clues about Egypt’s ancient past.

OSAMA AL-SHIMI: We can find in this shaft, maybe, a small fragment, a small pottery, a small (inaudible). We can know from it very important knowledge about our history.

MATT BROWN: The whole area is just pockmarked with shafts, most of them going down to tombs. The doctor tells me that the ancient brickwork in this one shows it’s perhaps 4,000 years old.

The authorities hope to plug the holes in security with more police patrols. A new cemetery built without permission will be dismantled and the locals are being promised new archaeological finds could bring more tourists to the area.

OSAMA AL-SHIMI: In the valley we started to do this, by doing a good relation and discuss with the people, that is our land, that’s our civilisation, that’s our history, that’s yours also.

MATT BROWN: The trouble is, tourism has been hit hard by the ongoing crisis and Egypt’s ancient vaults aren’t the only ones being emptied. Foreign currency reserves are now dangerously low.

Nile tour operator Osama Akram says he’s smashed his usual staff of around 20 down to just four.

OSAMA AKRAM, TOUR OPERATOR (voiceover translation): I used to start taking tourists out at seven in the morning and I’d work into the evening, taking people out for little parties, even at this time of year.

MATT BROWN: While the industry’s struggling to make a comeback, it’s meant to be one of the pillars of the economy and remains down about 25 per cent. The luxury hotels lining the Nile are all but empty.

OSAMA AKRAM (voiceover translation): The Ministry of the Interior should do more to get police back on the streets and restore security so tourists feel safe.

MATT BROWN: The lack of foreign cash coming in is just one reason why the political crisis is also a financial crisis because Egypt spends around a quarter of its budget on fuel subsidies. That’s more than health and education combined.

The International Monetary Fund wants reform if it’s to hand over a loan of around $5 billion. But it’s a politically explosive issue, one the Islamists now ruling Egypt are still grappling with. In the meantime, they’re borrowing from the likes of Libya and hoping for a bit of smooth sailing ahead.

Matt Brown, Lateline.

Do you have a comment or a story idea? Get in touch with the Lateline team by clicking here.