A free fortnight in Egypt

Tuesday 20 Feb 2024

A free trip of two weeks to Egypt has been offered to a tourist falsely arrested for smuggling antiquities

French tourist


“I was very attracted to the object — a small sitting figure dressed in a loincloth with his hands on his knees, I had no idea it would bring me bad luck,” 56-year-old French tourist Nathalie told the French newspaper Le Figaro this week.

The story of Nathalie began almost two weeks ago at the customs check point at Luxor International Airport during her way back to France after she had enjoyed an exceptional experience on a Nile cruise visiting the ancient Egyptian monuments in Luxor, Aswan, and Abu Simbel.

Nathalie was arrested on suspicion of possessing and trafficking antiquities. Her beloved statuette, which she had bought from a bazaar at her hotel in Luxor, turned out to be her nightmare.

According to Le Figaro, experts from the Archaeological Unit in the airport concluded that the statuette was an authentic ancient Egyptian piece and not a replica.

Nathalie was suspected of trafficking antiquities and was transferred to the city police station. Her court-appointed lawyer explained to her that she had been presumed to be guilty and that she would have to do her best with the police.

“It was very hard to see how he was defending my interests,” said Nathalie, who found herself spending the night alongside 40 people in a police cell.

Two days later, Nathalie found herself before a French-speaking judge. The gallery owner from whom she had bought the statuette was summoned to provide the address of the workshop where similar models were produced in order to prove that the statue was a replica.

Although the judge announced the suspension of proceedings, Nathalie did not receive a formal dismissal. The scene was then repeated, and the judge acknowledged the good faith of the defendant and declared the cessation of the proceedings.

Nathalie was allowed to return to France.

“From what I understand, it seems that I am permanently banned from entering the country,” Nathalie told Le Figaro following the ordeal. Nevertheless, she has no intention of leaving the matter unresolved, and she intends to overturn the ban and obtain official acknowledgment of the case’s dismissal.

A top official at the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) speaking on condition of anonymity told Al-Ahram Weekly that the story was “twisted”. He said that the Archaeological Unit at the airport that examined the statuette had found it covered with a green patina preventing its inspection.

The makers of replicas usually aim to artificially age such statues by applying an artificial patina, but in this case the statuette was corroded on the left side of the face raising suspicions about its authenticity.

The unit therefore decided the piece must be genuine in order to prevent the smuggling of an archaeological piece outside the country.

The prosecution-general assigned a committee to check the statuette, but this was unable to determine whether it was an authentic piece or a replica. It was then transferred to the archaeological laboratory at the Luxor Museum to remove the patina and determine the effects of corrosion on the statue.

The source said that after mechanical and electrochemical cleaning, the features of the statuette emerged, and it became clear that it was not internally affected by rust. The marks of chisels and scrapers appeared confirming that it was a newly fabricated piece.

“The Archaeological Unit at Luxor Airport inspects hundreds of pieces, and there is no issue with gifts, replicas, and handicrafts,” the official said.

However, an artificially aged replica similar to an authentic artefact made using chemicals that affect the nature of the metal could constitute a violation of the law. “It falls under fraudulent practices that could cast doubt on the authenticity of other antiquities. In such cases, an intervention is required using laboratory techniques not present at airports,” he said.

A police official said that Nathalie is not banned from entering Egypt and that she is always welcome.

Ahmed Youssef, assistant to the minister of tourism and antiquities for communication, said the ministry had taken steps to mitigate the repercussions of the incident.

The Egyptian ambassador in Paris welcomed Nathalie, and a Zoom call was arranged with the minister. The Egyptian Tourism Federation has also offered her a two-week vacation to visit Egypt at her convenience.

Youssef said that the ministry is organising meetings with the Egyptian Tourism Federation and the Chamber for Souvenir Shops and Bazaars to ask all souvenir shops to issue electronic invoices to tourists buying replicas including a detailed description of every piece.

“The ministry is also reviewing creating a barcode for every replica sold in bazaars and souvenir shops to prove that it is a replica and not authentic,” Youssef said, adding that state-of-the-art devices are being provided to archaeological units in Egyptian ports and airports.


* A version of this article appears in print in the 22 February, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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