2016 World Monuments Watch
The ancient settlement of Abusir el-Malek sat on a small rise in the fertile floodplain between the Faiyum and the Nile. By 1500 B.C., it was a prosperous settlement with many temples and a vast burial ground and buildings stretching across a large area. Excavations in the early twentieth century revealed burials centered on a cult honoring Osiris, the Egyptian god of the afterlife. The earliest evidence of occupation at the site dates from around 3000 B.C., with the majority of burials beginning 1,500 years later. The cemetery continued to be used for centuries, with the earlier shaft tombs being filled with later burials from the Greek, Roman, and Islamic periods. Thousands of individuals were buried at the site over hundreds of years of use.
Archaeological exploration of Abusir el-Malek in the early twentieth century resulted in many artifacts being placed in museums around the world, bringing attention to the importance of the site and its history. Site work continued in the 1970s, emphasizing again the valuable information being gained from documenting Abusir el-Malek. Following the Arab Spring in 2011, when policing archaeological sites became more difficult, there was a tremendous surge in looting of heritage sites in the region. Abusir el-Malek is one of the archaeological sites that has been particularly heavily looted. The continuing destruction of sites in search of saleable antiquities has resulted in the loss of scientific evidence, artifacts, and understanding of the stratigraphy of archaeological ruins at thousands of ancient sites like Abusir el-Malek. Sadly this situation is not unique in Egypt, or elsewhere in the world. Times of crisis—poverty, conflict, or political turmoil—stretch the protection of our past, often to breaking point.
Placing Abusir el-Malek on the 2016 World Monuments Watch cannot repair the damage to the site, but it can potentially raise awareness about looting and highlight efforts worldwide to stem the tide of illicit trafficking of archaeological objects. Developing alternative sources of income for local communities and incentives for protecting heritage sites, coupled with enforcement of local, national, and international cultural property laws, is a vital challenge.