Retrieving smuggled heritage
After five years of diplomatic discussions and joint efforts with US authorities including the Department of Homeland Security, Egypt has succeeded in recovering a collection of 5,000 artefacts from the Museum of the Bible in Washington.
The objects had been held at the museum since its opening. Egypt has been seeking to repatriate the objects, which were smuggled out of the country from illegal excavations.
The artefacts include painted funerary masks, fragments of wooden coffins, a set of portraits of the dead, the heads of stone statues, Coptic manuscripts of prayers written in both Arabic and Coptic and Arabic alone, and fragments of papyrus with texts in Coptic and Greek as well as in ancient Egyptian hieratic and demotic scripts.
Shaaban Abdel-Gawad, supervisor of the Repatriation Department at the Ministry of Antiquities, said the objects had not been taken from archaeological storehouses or museums but had been smuggled out of the country after being illegally excavated.
The objects are now at the Coptic Museum in Cairo for restoration and will be part of a forthcoming exhibition. They will also be examined by the committee responsible for exhibition displays to select some of them for display in other museums.
Abdel-Gawad said that over the past two years Egypt has successfully repatriated 5,694 artefacts and 21,660 coins from Italy, the Czech Republic, the US, Sharjah, Kuwait, France, Cyprus, Britain, and Germany.
Among these was a collection of 425 artefacts from the United Arab Emirates dating to various eras of ancient Egypt. Sheikh Sultan bin Mohamed Al-Qasimi, the ruler of Sharjah, had decided to return the artefacts in a gesture of appreciation to Egypt.
The collection includes objects from the Pre-Dynastic era as early as 4,000 BCE, from the old, middle and new kingdoms, and from the Ptolemaic, Graeco-Roman and Coptic eras, along with rare stone, ceramic, and bronze figurines of ancient Egyptian deities like Isis and Amon-Ra, coloured wooden sarcophagi, human and animal mummies, and accessories made of alabaster.
Egypt also received an ancient Egyptian relief from London that had been stolen and illegally smuggled out of Egypt.
Abdel-Gawad said that the department had succeeded in locating the artefact by following up on the websites of international auctioneers. The relief was originally displayed in the open museum of the Karnak Temples in Luxor and carries the cartouche of king Amonhotep I.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 4 February , 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly