The art of collateral damage

When you're next in the Valley of the Kings, beware of guides bearing gifts - phony little alabaster treasures, which they swear came straight from the very same pharaonic tombs that dozens of archaeologists have combed for decades.

What extraordinary luck that the official excavators missed these ancient artifacts now offered for sale.

Of course, this game the guides play with the gullible to earn extra cash is relatively harmless. No real treasures stolen. No tourist tricked, unless he chooses to switch off common sense.

Even so, Egypt has a long history of real grave robbers. Remember the riches of Tutankhamen's tomb - the one the robbers missed.

That ancient art of pillaging is going through a revival, it seems (see story). In Israel and the occupied territories, where literally thousands of archaeological sites dot the landscape, more and more are being dug up illicitly.

The upsurge is being fed by the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as Palestinians, in particular, look for unorthodox means to supplement their meager incomes.

In conflict, art often joins the list of collateral damage.

Napoleon used the Sphinx for shooting practice. Mussolini walked off with an ancient Ethiopian obelisk that still stands in Rome.

But when the Taliban blew off the faces of the Bamiyan Buddhas, the conflict was purely symbolic.

As the Taliban demonstrated, cultural preservation is rife with politics. Before the statues were defaced, a Taliban spokesman complained that the world cared more for Afghanistan's past than its starving present.

UNESCO offered $100 million to preserve the statues. The Taliban's answer: a pile of rubble.

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