This week was a very fruitful one for the repatriation of stolen ancient Egyptian antiquities, with five distinguished artefacts being returned to Egypt from Canada and Germany that had been illegally smuggled out of the country, reports Nevine El-Aref.
One of these artefacts was a 2,300-year-old cat statue representing the ancient Egyptian goddess Bastet that had been taken to Canada, and the other four consisted of two funerary masks and two painted reliefs that had been taken to Germany. The five artefacts were handed over to the Egyptian embassies in Canada and Germany in celebration ceremonies.
The 15-cm bronze statue of Bastet, illegally smuggled out of the country, was seized by Canadian border agents last year and was originally one among a number of holy offerings that the ancient Egyptians left at temples dedicated to Bastet.
“It is definitely part of our heritage… not only of Egyptian heritage, but the heritage of humanity,” Ambassador Ahmed Abu Zeid said at the ceremony held at his residence in Canada. “The moment we were sure of the authenticity of the piece, we started to negotiate with the Canadian government for its handover.”
Shaaban Abdel-Gawad, general supervisor of the Repatriated Antiquities Department at the Ministry of Antiquities, said the cat symbolised the goddess Bastet, the daughter of the sun god Re, who was depicted in drawings in the form of a woman with a cat’s head.
A divine power, Bastet represented fertility, family, good health, and humanity. Bastet statues made of bronze or wood were often left at temples of Bastet as offerings to the gods.
The ancient Egyptians cherished their relationships with cats, and when they died, they mummified them and made statues for them from various types of stone and metal. A cemetery has been found that contains thousands of mummified cats, all done with brilliant precision and indicating the importance of cats and the reverence and respect in which they were held by the ancient Egyptians.
The Canadian assistant minister of heritage expressed her happiness in being able to participate at the handover ceremony, saying that the Canadian government was keen to return such objects to the Egyptian authorities in compliance with the UN cultural agency UNESCO convention on prohibiting and preventing the illegal trade, import, export and transfer of cultural property, signed by both Canada and Egypt.
In recent years, Egypt has redoubled its efforts to repatriate stolen and illegally smuggled antiquities from all over the globe. Canadian officials said that this was the third time that Canada had handed over stolen artefacts to Egypt. In December 2004, Canada returned a clay funerary figurine, and in August 2010 it returned a marble first century BCE statue depicting the head of a woman.
Egyptian officials estimate that approximately 29,000 stolen antiquities have been returned over the last three or four years, but say that tens of thousands more are still out there waiting to be found.
Also last week, Egypt repatriated four objects from Germany that had been stolen from the tomb of the Late Period vizier Baken-Re-Nef at the Saqqara Necropolis. The pieces consist of two limestone painted reliefs depicting the cartouche of the vizier and two funerary masks.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 March, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly