Antiquities experts call for war on Isis looting in Syria and Iraq

The TimesBel Trew, Tripoli
British antiquities experts are calling for an international body to investigate and repatriate stolen artefacts to counter the looting and sale of antiquities from the Middle East.

The pillaging of archaeological sites and museums as well as illicit digging has surged in the security breakdown that followed the 2011 Arab Spring, becoming a multibillion-pound trade.

Satellite imagery of areas in countries such as Egypt and Syria now shows pock-marked landscapes, where opportunist thieves, including jihadist groups such as Islamic State, have dug for treasures to be sold on international markets.

Neal Spencer, keeper of Ancient Egypt and Sudan at the British Museum, said that the only way to try to stop antiquities trafficking, and with it the destruction of ancient sites and thefts from museums, was for better international co-operation and the creation of a full database of objects.

“Archaeologists, museums, law enforcement bodies and reputable art dealers and auction houses must collaborate to create an open, transparent and freely accessible online platform to trace objects moving around,” he told The Times.

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Sudan: Archaeologists race to save Nubian history from Nile waters

The TimesBel Trew, Amara West, Sudan
They say the swarms of biting black flies can turn even the calmest men mad when they take over this area of Sudan in the spring. The bugs, however, are just one of the plagues facing British Museum archaeologists at the Amara West dig, 430 miles north of Khartoum. They are also battling scorpions, camel spiders as big as your fist, and crocodiles on the banks of the nearby Nile.

This area may be uncomfortable for the experts working there but it is one of the most exciting frontiers in archaeology. A team of ten is racing to excavate a 3,300-year-old Pharaonic town that is shedding new light on how Egypt’s rulers controlled the Nubian territory that they conquered to the south of their heartlands.

An ivory statue of the Pharaonic god Bes with a Nubian face found at Amara West
An ivory statue of the Pharaonic god Bes with a Nubian face found at Amara West – British Museum

Amara West was the centre of Pharaonic administration between 1300 and 1070BC and as it is excavated the team is able to unearth history and correct assumptions about Nubia.

There was no written form of the Nubian language so for 200 years Egyptologists scrutinised the ancient civilisation through the lens of the damning hieroglyphs of Pharaonic propaganda, in which the Nubians were described as a simple people who needed to be civilised by the advanced dynasties of Egypt.

The latest research at Amara West and other key sites in this area has unveiled the truth, however — the civilisation was sophisticated, and under Egyptian occupation in the 2nd millennium BC there was a blending and borrowing of cultures.

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No mummies, no pyramids: life and faith in Egypt after the Pharoahs

The TimesBel Trew, Cairo
Coughing fans cool the corridors of a 13th-century Egyptian mosque, where we have gone to escape the simmering heat of a Luxor morning. Within the sunbaked walls of Abu Haggag, men are bent double in prayer. As they bow their heads, an odd strip of translucent green film catches my eye. I’m told it tactfully shields worshippers from what lies beneath: an ancient relief glorifying the reign of the powerful Pharaoh Ramses II, the presence of which should, in Islam, be idolatrous.

The dusty green film represents tolerance and coexistence and is a quiet demonstration against the rampaging savagery that has taken chisels and explosives to the pagan past and redefined the Middle East by conflict. A few months ago and just a kilometre away, three Islamic State militants tried to destroy a Karnak temple. They accidentally blew themselves up in the car park when the guards intervened.

It is that near-forgotten history of living together, sharing spaces, labour and love, as well as the blending of craftsmanship and iconography, that the British Museum hopes to revive in its upcoming exhibition Egypt: Faith After the Pharaohs. The show shelves the familiar mummies and pyramids in favour of the 1,200 years that followed them, with the waxing and waning of Abrahamic faiths.

Starting in 30BC with the suicide of Cleopatra, the last pharaoh, and her lover Mark Antony, the exhibition explores the build up to Christianity becoming the state religion in the 4th century, and the arrival of Islam during the Arab conquest about 300 years after that. Jewish communities periodically flourish in between.

Through 200 objects it hopes to challenge a historical narrative that suggests the ages of the ancient and modern faiths were clearly defined. In fact, though they sometimes quarrelled, they often also borrowed — and continue to do so, as can be seen at Abu Haggag.

The reliefs here, carefully covered but not hidden, are in fact the tops of the intricately inscribed columns of Ramses II’s 13th-century BC Grand Colonnade. The towering pillars of ancient stone puncture different rooms of the mosque, which is built on top of the 3,400-year-old Luxor Temple, a mesh of ancient Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Christian and Muslim living spaces and shrines.

The entire muddled scene is exactly what the exhibition is trying to get at, says Dr Neal Spencer, the museum’s keeper of Egypt and Sudan, who is overseeing the show.

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Photo: Egypt by Bel Trew