Egyptian antiquities attacked and under threat

Nevine El-Aref , Thursday 3 Mar 2011

The Ministry of Antiquities has issued a detailed and alarming report on the widespread looting and vandalism of archaeological sites and museums during the last month

Egyptian museum
Egyptian army soldiers stand in front of the Egyptian museum at Tahrir Square (Photo: AP)

When the Egyptian Revolution began 25 January, and through its first week, there were only a few reports of looting at Qantara East in Sinai and the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. However, looting has increased all over the country, and Egypt's antiquities are in grave danger from criminals who are trying to take advantage of the current situation.

The Egyptian Museum was subject to looting on 29 January. When archaeologists lead by Zahi Hawass, minister of state for antiquities affairs, entered in the morning following the break-in they saw priceless objects broken and thrown all over the galleries. However, all of the masterpieces seemed to be present. At first glance, it did not seem the damage was too severe, and Hawass announced that the museum was safe.

According to a preliminary inventory carried out at the museum, 18 items were missing. Four of these items have already been recovered. The Heart Scarab of Yuya, the grand grandfather of King Tutankhamun, and the body of goddess Menkaret from a wooden gilded statue featuring her carrying Tutankhamun were both found on the west side of the museum near the new gift shop. One wooden ushabtis was discovered under a showcase inside of the museum. The statue of Akhenaten as an offering bearer was discovered by a young protester near the southern wall of the museum in Tahrir Square. His family immediately contacted the Ministry of Antiquities to arrange the statue’s return to the museum.

“Now I am waiting for the registration, collections management and documentation department to complete its final report on what else, if anything, is missing from the Egyptian Museum,” said Hawass.

Meanwhile, many storage sites have suffered break-ins. At Qantara East in Sinai, looters broke into the store and stole several boxes of objects. Fortunately, to date, 292 items have been returned. Criminals also attacked Saqqara storage several times about 10 days ago. The padlocks of many tombs were opened.

In Dahshur, the store of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s expedition, known as De Morgan, was attacked twice and looters were able to overpower and tie up guards. In Abusir, looters broke into the magazine of a Czech expedition. In Giza, they succeeded to break into the Selim Hassan store. These looters were carrying guns and the unarmed site guards quickly surrendered for fear of their lives. Stores in Tell El-Basta in the Delta and Wadi El-Feiran, near Sharm El-Sheikh, were also subject to looting attacks.

“Site inspectors at each of these locations are still carefully checking the magazine inventories against their databases to assess the full extent of the damage,” Hawass pointed out.

Several pharaonic sites have been subject to vandalism also. The tomb of Ken-Amun in Tell El-Maskhuta, near Ismailia, was completely destroyed. It is the only known 19th Dynasty tomb in Lower Egypt. At Giza, near the Sphinx, looters broke into the tomb of Impy. Vandals also attempted to destroy other buildings and tombs in Giza, but they were unsuccessful. In Saqqara, inscribed blocks and parts of the false door were stolen from the tomb of Hetepka and from the tomb of Ptahshepses in Abusir.

The guards of sites in Nekhen, north of Edfu, caught several thieves. In Aswan, looters attempted to steal a statue of Ramses II, but archaeologists and guards at the site apprehended them.

A site in Northern Sinai was destroyed when looters arrived with a loader, while looters have attacked the archaeological site of Abydos west of Sohag governorate, nearly every night. Illegal excavations and trenches, some as deep as five metres, have damaged the site.

Reports of illegal construction have been reported near the pyramid of Merenre and the Mastaba Faraun, near Saqqara.

Many sites, including Alexandria, Ismailia, Saqqara, Behaira, Sharqia, Abusir and Dahshur have reported illegal excavations, some of which have taken place at night.

Islamic monuments have also suffered during this crisis. The police station of Al-Gamalia was set on fire. This station was recently restored at a cost of LE1 billion. In Tanta, in the Delta, the Sabil of Ali Bek Al-Kabir was broken into and three windows of Msavat metal framework, furniture and the modern iron gate were stolen. Some pieces of the window were found in the possession of street merchants.

Near Alexandria, Kom El-Nadoura suffered damage to its doors and furniture. At Wekhalet Al-Jeddawi, in Esna, local people broke in, changed the locks and are protesting in front of it.

Khan El-Zeraksha, a recently restored group of villas, was broken into by about 50 armed thugs, who forced the security team to leave. The criminals are still occupying the site.

On Monday, 14 February, a group broke the door of Wekhalet Al-Haramin, in Al-Hussein area, which falls under the Al-Awqaf Authority. The Egyptian army and the Awqaf Authority worked together and had the thugs out by Tuesday.

Hawass points out that despite all the damage and looting that has occurred, all Jewish synagogues and all Christian churches and monasteries have remained safe and undamaged.

The guards and security forces at antiquities sites are unarmed, which makes them easy targets for armed looters. In addition, the Egyptian police force does not have the capacity to protect every archaeological site, monument and museum in Egypt. And despite the efforts of ordinary people to protect Egypt's cultural heritage, it remains at risk. 

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