January 15, 2013

New burials endanger ancient necropolis

The illegal expansion of a local cemetery has alarmed Egyptian antiquities experts.

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The illegal expansion of a local cemetery is seen spreading toward Egypt’s first pyramids and temples at the ancient historic site of Dahshour, causing a panic among antiquities experts, who warn that construction endangers the ancient, largely unexplored complex.

Photos by The Associated Press

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An Egyptian laborer works as his employer smokes a water pipe at the local cemetery that is spreading toward Egypt’s first pyramids and temples.

Rows of them now cover several acres inside the UNESCO-defined antiquities zone of Dahshour, coming to within 150 yards of Sneferu's Valley Temple. The site is the first known such valley temple, which later each pharaoh would build in connection with his pyramid.

Adjacent to the construction is the crumbled 3,800-year-old Black Pyramid of Amenemhat III, an area that has faced heavy looting over the past two years. Just beyond towers Sneferu's Bent Pyramid, dating some 700 years earlier, with its distinctive bent sides believed to have been caused when the builders had to correct a too-steep angle of ascent half-way through construction.

Farther away is the Red Pyramid, in which Sneferu's builders got the job right, producing the first smooth-sided pyramid, evolving from the stepped structures built by earlier dynasties.

The state minister of antiquities Mohammed Ibrahim said in a statement Monday that an order had been issued to remove the construction and the Interior Ministry, in charge of police, had been asked to carry it out. "The financial resources of the ministry are not enough" to protect the sites, it said.

The question is whether it will be implemented. Younes said the military would have to get involved since police have refused to act. He said past requests for orders to remove illegal construction at archaeological sites had been ignored. "There is no deterrent," he said.

He also worries that the rise of Islamists to power brings a dismissive attitude to pre-Islamic antiquities.

He pointed out that pharaonic treasures – a key part of the country's identity – are mentioned in the Islamist-drafted constitution only as "an afterthought," just in terms of maintaining sites. In fact, the constitution doesn't refer directly to pharaonic sites or Egypt's ancient civilization at all, making only a vague reference to "heritage."

Some at the construction site said they were sure Islamist President Mohammed Morsi won't order the removal of the modern cemetery because he was a believer and respects Islam's ways.

Authorities may be wary of forcibly removing the construction and risking a clash with the villagers, who say they won't go unless they are given a new site nearby and compensation for what they have already built.

Ehab Eddin el-Haddad, one resident building a burial plot, said removing the tombs would require "killing these people, and it would mean a return to the old regime … it would be the return of repression."

The villagers come from a string of nearby farming communities crammed amid the palm groves in the narrow, verdant strip of the Nile Valley, where land is limited as Egypt's population of 85 million swells. Residents said they were desperate for new space for burial plots.

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