El Hibeh and the Aftermath of the Egyptian Revolution

El-Hibeh (pronounced “El Heybah”) is a picturesque archaeological site in northern middle Egypt. The name El Hibeh does not appear to be ancient and its derivation is unclear. In ancient times the town seems to have had several names, most notably Teudjoi (“their wall”) in ancient Egyptian and Coptic, and Ankyronpolis in Greek.

Scholarly interest in Hibeh began in the 1890s, when a large number of papyri attributed to the site appeared on the antiquities market. These included important works such as the Report of Wenamun, A Tale of Woe, and our best extant copy of the onomasticon of Amenemope, all reportedly found together; the Harpenese letters, administrative and priestly correspondence from Dynasty 21; and the Rylands Papyri from Dynasties 26 and 27, including the famous Petition of Petiese (Papyrus Rylands IX). The Rylands papyri were evidently found together in a pot near the east wall in the southern part of the site, the area where extensive looting was going on at the time of our last visit to the site. Today papyri attributed to El Hibeh are found in museums all over the world.

A multi-disciplinary team from the University of California, Berkeley has been investigating El Hibeh since 2001. We also seek to understand El Hibeh in its many contexts—local, regional, national, political, historical, social, economic, urban and so forth; to trace the development and interrelationships of the town and its hinterland through time and space; and to relate the textual and epigraphic materials from and about the site to the archaeological findings in as specific a manner as possible. Hibeh is especially important for the insights it can provide into the archaeological dark age of the Third Intermediate Period (1070-664 BCE); more specifically it can shed light on the character and development of a Third Intermediate Period provincial settlement. Most Egyptologists now have revised their prior negative opinion of post-New Kingdom Egypt. No longer is it seen by the majority as “unEgyptian” or an “age of decline.” Rather, it is coming to be viewed as a time of thriving and diverse multi-cultural activity accompanied by an exciting revisualization and reinvention of various aspects of Egyptian culture.

As a result of our work to date (2001-2009), we now know that Hibeh reached its greatest occupational extent during the Third Intermediate Period, after which there was a marked shrinkage of the town in subsequent eras. We have found nothing earlier than the TIP at the site. Hibeh, arguably among the best preserved tells in Egypt, therefore represents a unique opportunity to excavate and investigate a TIP town. Few settlement sites elsewhere in Egypt preserve known TIP stratigraphy; no other town site has the varied and extensive stratified TIP deposits of Hibeh. The on-going destruction of the site by looters thus represents a hugely significant loss of cultural heritage.

In the words of Dr. Carol Redmount, project director:

In the aftermath of the January, 2011 Egyptian revolution, I called a number of colleagues in Egypt, first to make sure they were okay, and second to see how Hibeh had fared, since I had heard there had been some site and magazine looting. Everyone I spoke with was fine, but all informed me that Hibeh had been damaged. The site was characterized as “very bad.” I had no idea what that meant. I was soon to find out.

In June 2011, I received a series of photographs via e-mail from a member of one of the foreign institutes at Cairo. A group had gone to visit Hibeh, had been chased away by site guards (who at that point were evidently functional), but were so appalled by what they saw in their short visit that they tracked me down and sent me their site photos. I now knew what “very bad” meant. The site was pock-marked with looting pits as far as the eye could see; broken body parts from destroyed burials were scattered everywhere.

Subsequently in July and December of 2011and January of 2012 I was sent more pictures of the plundering. These photographs documented massive looting everywhere, as well as the uncovering of previously unknown and clearly significant structures in various locations. As I reviewed these pictures I was able to identify new depradations; it was clear that that the plundering was on-going.

Given the scale of the destruction, we applied to the Ministry of State for Antiquities (MSA) for a 2012 study season that also included mapping, assessing and, where necessary, mitigating the looting damage. I spoke again with colleagues in Egypt, who indicated that most of the looting had occurred immediately after the revolution when the police had completely withdrawn from their duties. Subsequent pillaging was the work, I was told, of a single man from the village north of the tell who shoveled holes at night, and whom the police were unable to catch. The implication was that he was doing only minor damage.

So we bought our plane tickets after our security clearances came through, arrived in Cairo, signed signed our contract as usual with the MSA, and prepared to begin our field season. The day before we were to begin work, I received an official call saying that the head of the Beni Suef Antiquities Police had revoked our security clearances because it was too dangerous for us to work at the site. Further investigation elicited the information that an armed “mafia-like” gang, led by a “master criminal,” was looting the site on an industrial scale and threatening the MSA inspectors. We next traveled to our dig house, hoping at least to be permitted to work in our storehouse, which was off the site proper and easily protected. As negotiations got more protracted, I returned to Cairo to see if I could expedite matters. The fastest way to Cairo from our dig house was a road that ran directly past Hibeh. As we drove past the site in the afternoon (we still hadn’t been allowed to set foot on it), we observed about ten men openly looting the site. When they saw us they took off on their motorcycles, but not before we were able to take pictures from our van. In one picture the face of the looter is clearly identifiable. Eventually we were given permission to move our study materials from the Hibeh storehouse to the MSA storehouse at Ihnasya el-Medinah. Although we had a three hour commute every day, we were able to do a solid month’s work, and I remain grateful to the MSA for salvaging our field season.

Looting Photographs

However, we continued to hit a brick wall about stopping the looting of the site and protecting it. In desperation, after being contacted by media personality, former member of Parliament, and Wafd party member Mohammed Sherdy, we decided to go public with Egyptian media. The Wafd newspaper published two feature articles on the pillaging of Hibeh, and the issue was even debated in the Egyptian parliament. Shortly thereafter we established a Save El Hibeh Egypt facebook site, which today has almost 1800 members.

Finally, to our delight, we were permitted by the MSA to visit the site on March 18. The damage was far worse than even the pictures indicated. Every part of the tell and surrounding cemetery had been plundered, including all of our excavation areas. On March 23, we again visited the site as part of an official MSA inspection tour of looted sites in Middle Egypt. This visit resulted in the sending of an official report to the MSA headquarters in Cairo; as a result of this report a second, high-level MSA committee visited the site on April 17; unfortunately we were not invited to accompany this group. Our final return to the site was the last day of our field season, April 19. We returned our study materials to the Hibeh magazine, and reburied as many bodies—actually body parts—as possible.

Hibeh remains unprotected, unfortunately. The looting continues. The loss to Egypt’s cultural heritage is incalculable. We continue to do what we can.