Monica Hanna

Archaeologist and social media activist risks her own life to focus worldwide attention to Egypt’s looting problem.

On Thursday, April 10, guests from all across the US traveled to honor the 2014 recipient of the SAFE Beacon Award, Dr. Monica Hanna, and hear her lecture “Saving Ancient Egypt, One Tweet at a Time: How Social Media is Saving One of the World’s Oldest Civilizations” in New York City. The event celebrated the work of Dr. Hanna and her extraordinary efforts in raising public awareness regarding the looting and destruction of Egypt’s cultural heritage, which has escalated since the Arab Spring and the 2011 uprising.

As Dr. Hanna’s first trip to the United States, the Beacon Award lecture was a also catalytic moment for SAFE. This year’s Beacon Award lecture was especially poignant, since with the exception of Dr. Donny George Youkhanna, no previous Beacon Award recipient has borne witness to tell the world about the destruction of their homeland’s cultural heritage. We were able to accomplish this only with the generous support of our Hosting Committee and other supporters, to whom we owe our deepest gratitude.

With the goal to honor Dr. Hanna and also help maximize the impact of her message in the United States — a major market country for Egyptian antiquities — the SAFE team was mobilized from the start to focus its efforts on gathering as much media attention as we could. Hard work and dedication paid off, when interviews of our SAFE Beacon Award winner appeared in the New York Times, the PBS “NewsHour” and on live radio with WNYC, the New York City affiliate of National Public Radio, CBC Radio in Toronto, and BBC, to name a few.

The Beacon Award lecture was both a celebration and a learning opportunity. Dr. Hanna was introduced by long-time SAFE supporter, Professor Lucille Roussin of the Cardozo School of Law, followed by Mr. Yasser Sorour of the Egyptian Consul General’s office in New York and by Dr. Sameh Iskander, president of the American Research Center in Egypt (ARCE), who described Dr. Hanna’s archaeological background, including research and conservation work at places such as Thebes and the Memphite Necropolis, and highlighted her recent work in using social media to draw attention and widespread support to threatened sites in Egypt.

View PBS NewsHour segment on Monica Hanna

Click to view PBS NewsHour segment on Monica Hanna, and read the transcript

Dr. Hanna’s lecture, aptly titled “Saving Ancient Egypt, One Tweet at a Time: How Social Media is Saving One of the World’s Oldest Civilizations,” focused on the many problems that Egypt now faces and her novel use of social media to address these challenges.

Drawing on firsthand accounts, the Egyptian archaeologist explained how she herself had witnessed—and indeed, continues to witness—armed and well-funded looters pillaging ancient and historical sites, as well as land-grabbing mafia groups who hastily build or bury their dead on such sites in an effort to claim the land. Dr. Hanna also cited her documentation of extreme damage caused by bulldozers and dynamite.

With more than 30,000 followers on Twitter and a growing network on Egypt’s Heritage Task Force, the Facebook community that she founded, Dr. Hanna has not only effectively used social media to raise public awareness; she has also rallied on-site assistance in cleaning up vandalized sites and has also protected destructive actions from occurring at others. Dr. Hanna then went on to explain the situation and her role in confronting the aftermath of a destructive attack on Egypt’s famed Malawi Museum, using the story to demonstrate the dire state of the country’s current looting situation. The incident resulted in most of the museum’s holdings ending up either stolen or destroyed, with the tragedy escalating such that the first local staffer on scene was shot dead. In the days following the event, Dr. Hanna, together with a local police officer and his family, as well as a group of local volunteers familiar with her work via Twitter, rescued what remained at the Malawi Museum.

Another highlight from Dr. Hanna’s lecture included a call to action, spurred yet again by the archaeologist herself. In this particular example, members of the local community of Dahshur—an area within the Memphis and Giza Pyramids World Heritage Site—came out in force to protest the looting of the site and to speak up for its protection, after learning of such incidents of armed looting and vandalism via Dr. Hanna’s Twitter feed. Moreover, the ensuing media attention from the protests prompted the government to provide improved security at the site. With a fitting quotation from the recent film adaptation of The Monuments Men, Dr. Hanna ended her presentation:

[x_blockquote cite=”Dr. Monica Hanna” type=”left”]You can wipe out an entire generation, you can burn their homes to the ground, and somehow they’ll still find their way back. But if you destroy their history, you destroy their achievements, then it’s as if they never existed.[/x_blockquote]

With these words as a reminder of the perilous situation of cultural heritage around the world, and the opportunities for a better future for the past, SAFE founder Cindy Ho presented the 2014 SAFE Beacon Award to Dr. Hanna, thanking her and her Egyptian colleagues for bringing hope to what has long been a dire situation. Stating SAFE’s goal as “to inform every member of the public, no matter what they do, or where they are, so that all may participate in the safeguarding of this connection to our ancestors,” she reminded the audience that public awareness must be based on facts and research to be effective: “This is why SAFE is proud to honor Monica for her unique combination of knowledge, skill, and a willingness to reach out to members of the public, all of us.”

hanna-inviteAfter the award ceremony, a group of attendees assembled at the East Village restaurant, Apiary, where chef-owner Scott Bryan provided a delicious meal — the ideal environment for lively conversation among both long-time SAFE supporters as well as new acquaintances.

Dr. Hanna’s New York visit also included SAFE Tours of the renowned Egyptian collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as well as the Brooklyn Museum. During the tours, Dr. Hanna shared her detailed knowledge of Egyptian archaeology, providing a personal insight into ancient Egypt’s culture, while also making present-day connections to the dangers such heritage currently faces.

Following her visit to New York, the indefatigable Dr. Hanna travelled to  Washington, D.C. where she was hosted by the Antiquities Coalition. She gave a talk at the Wilson Center, co-hosted by the Coalition, to carry on her campaign in raising public awareness about the dangers of looting and vandalism. To be sure, while the losses and the destruction of cultural heritage that Egyptians witness almost daily may seem far away to many Americans, Monica Hanna’s dramatic and personal experiences, recounted during her visit to the U.S., effectively place the issues right in front of us, compelling us to regard the cultural heritage of Egypt as part of our shared, global cultural heritage. Indeed, such was the purpose of Dr. Hanna’s trip to the US and such was message that both SAFE and Dr. Hanna came together to deliver at the 2014 Beacon Award celebration.

The success of this year’s Beacon Award marks an achievement for not only Dr. Monica Hanna, but also host organization, SAFE. The long and careful planning of this year’s event offered a special opportunity to lend support to one of the field’s most vocal and inspiring figures, and introduce her to a new audience in the United States. Thanks to the diligent work of SAFE members and volunteers, as well as the Beacon Award Hosting Committee and donors, both Dr. Hanna and SAFE were able to achieve the common goal of raising public awareness surrounding the destruction of our shared cultural heritage.  Another recap of the evening’s lecture may also be found via Ricardo St. Hilaire.

SAFE is grateful to the following for their skills, care, hard work and kind support that made the 2014 SAFE Beacon Award a reality:

Betsy Hiel of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review whose articles introduced SAFE to Dr. Monica Hanna

Shawn Baldwin for his portrait of Dr. Hanna, which no one can ignore

Quicksilver Media and Unreported World for their documentary “Egypt’s Tomb Raiders”

SAFE’s volunteers and interns without whom the SAFE Beacon Award would not have been possible: Elizabeth Gilgan, Alyssa Gregory, Damien Huffer, Mary Montgomery, Sandra Roorda, Rebecca Rushfield, Michael Shamah, Tessa Varner, Marni Blake Walter

And to Monica, for inspiring us all.