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The 5-Year Anniversary of the Capitol Archaeological Institute and the Journey to the Antiquities Coalition

October 16, 2015

CAI launch on 7 October 2010
(Left to Right) Dr. Eric H Cline, CAI Director; Steven Knapp, GWU President; Deborah Lehr, CAI and Antiquities Coalition Chairman; Dr. Zahi Hawass, former Minister of Antiquities of Egypt after signing official launch of the Capitol Archaeological Institute on October 7, 2010.

By: Katie A. Paul

Five years ago this month, a collection of DC professionals and heritage experts began a journey out of a passion for archaeology that led to a global initiative. On October 7, 2010, The George Washington University Capitol Archaeological Institute (CAI) was launched under the directorship of Dr. Eric H. Cline, a Biblical archaeologist and Professor of Classics and Anthropology at GWU. The official launch event featured special guest Dr. Zahi Hawass, the former Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities of Egypt and the world’s most recognized Egyptologist. That Egypt was the focus of the CAI’s first event was prescient.

Less than four months after the launch of the CAI, theJanuary 2011 Egyptian Revolution began and brought with it a new era of hope for the Egyptian people but also an era of darkness for the nation’s cultural heritage. The looting of the Cairo Museum after the start of the Revolution, combined with mass plunder of major archaeological sites, left the heritage community in a state of shock and seeking solutions on how to address this attack against heritage beyond statements of condemnation.

Deborah Lehr and Katie Paul
Deborah Lehr (left) and Katie A. Paul (right)

The immediate threat to some of the world’s most famous heritage and the need for an active response struck a cord with the CAI’s Chairman, Deborah Lehr and then-graduate student, Katie A. Paul, the first Director of Programs at the CAI. Given their backgrounds, Lehr in the government overseeing major initiatives, and Paul’s as a community activist, both sought solutions to a problem that being a better archaeologist could not solve. They reached out to like-minded organizers seeking a more active responsive. And thus a new initiative to protect Egyptian antiquities was born.

In March 2011, the Capitol Archaeological Institute released a Call to Action to Protect Egyptian Antiquities that received signatures from dozens of museums, arts, and antiquities leaders and experts from around the world. Based on that interest, a month later, the International Coalition to Protect Egyptian Antiquities (ICPEA) was formed. The ICPEA, led by the CAI, formed a coalition of professionals and organizations including the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) and the American Schools of Oriental Research. This collection of experts worked closely with the Egyptian Embassy in Washington, DC under Deputy Chief of Mission Yasser El Naggar to seek solutions to the looting epidemic that was quickly spreading across Egypt given the post-Revolution breakdown in the governance structure.

Working with experts in satellite analysis and cultural heritage, the ICPEA gathered evidence of a widespread looting issue unlike anything seen in the country previously. And in May 2011, Lehr led an ICPEA mission at the invitation of the Egyptian government to present its findings, as well as a set of proposed solutions.

Google Earth image of looters pits at Apamea, Syria - Credit Trafficking Culture
Google Earth image of looters pits at Apamea, Syria in 2012. Credit: Trafficking Culture

In the following months, as reports surfaced of widespread looting across the Middle East and North African (MENA) region, it became clear transnational networks of criminals were trafficking in illicit antiquities and therefore the response needed to be extended beyond Egypt’s borders. It was a regional problem that required a regional solution.

Egypt’s position as a leader in the MENA region, and as a gateway between the Middle East and Africa, made its role a critical part in the fight against the illicit trafficking of antiquities by criminal elements or cultural racketeering. With the efforts of the ICPEA quickly broadening beyond Egypt, the Antiquities Coalition (AC) was launched in January 2014 by Chair and Founder Deborah Lehr as an independent not-for-profit, designed to take a solutions-oriented approach to the ongoing looting and destruction of cultural heritage in nations in crisis.

Recognizing the cross-disciplinary reach of the issues contributing to illicit antiquities trafficking, the Antiquities Coalition team brings together a cross section of expertise from business and government (Chair and Founder, Deborah Lehr), to media (Co-Founder, Peter Herdrich), to law (Executive Director, Tess Davis) and anthropology (Chief of Staff, Katie A. Paul) to develop and implement innovative and workable solutions to the threats posed to our shared cultural heritage. The AC coordinates a diverse group of experts in a variety of fields including policy, anti-terror studies, heritage and beyond to examine the ongoing developments to heritage threats and the tactics that can be used to stop them.

Egypt MOU signing ceremony with AC - 2014
Egyptian Minister of Antiquities, Mohammed Ibrahim (left) finalizes Public-Private Partnership with Chairman of the Antiquities Coalition, Deborah Lehr (right).

In March 2014, the ICPEA, under the new umbrella organization the Antiquities Coalition, formed a Public-Private Partnership with the Egyptian government and signed a Memorandum of Understanding with then Minister of Antiquities, Mohamed Ibrahim.

Since its inception, the Antiquities Coalition has partnered with a variety of organizations to develop solutions, such as the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) and the Terror Asymmetrics Project (TAPSTRI), as well as organizations to bring together world leaders in the fight against cultural racketeering and cultural cleansing including the Middle East Institute (MEI), the Asia Society, and UNESCO.

Culture Under Threat conference in Cairo
Leaders from 10 Arab League countries joined the Antiquities Coalition, MEI, and UNESCO in Cairo May 13-14, 2015 at the Culture Under Threat Cairo Conference to discuss solutions to cultural racketeering in the MENA region.

With the issue of cultural heritage now at the forefront of discussion in the highest levels of government, the fight to protect and preserve heritage continues with the Call to Action to Protect the World’s Cultural Heritage, issued at the close of the #CultureUnderThreat Forum held on September 24, 2015 in New York.

From a Call to Action on Egypt’s heritage to one on world heritage, the now global efforts of the Antiquities Coalition and its partners are the result of a small group of passionate archaeologists and experts who gathered five years ago at GWU under the leadership of the Capitol Archaeological Institute.

Join us in signing the Call to Action to Protect the World’s Cultural Heritage as we continue the fight to save our history!