Mohammed Mursi

Egyptian looters steal priceless statue, hundreds of artefacts from museum

Thieves take advantage of security vacuum caused by street clashes to ransack museum, stealing priceless statue and 1,000 other artefacts

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 21 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 21 August, 2013, 10:06am

Gangs of looters took advantage of the violent clashes in Egypt to steal a priceless 3,500-year-old limestone statue, ancient beaded jewellery and more than 1,000 other valuable artefacts.

The scale of the looting of the Malawi Museum in the southern Nile River city of Minya showed the security vacuum that has taken hold in cities outside Cairo, where police have all but disappeared from the streets.

Days after vandals ransacked the building last Wednesday, there were no police or soldiers in sight as groups of teenage boys burned mummies and broke limestone sculptures too heavy for the thieves to carry away.

The security situation remained precarious on Monday as gunmen on top of nearby buildings fired on a police station near the museum.

Among the stolen antiquities was a statue of the daughter of Pharaoh Akhenaten, who ruled during the 18th dynasty. Archaeologist Monica Hanna described it as a "masterpiece".

I told them that this is property of the Egyptian people and you are destroying it. They were apparently upset with me because I am not veiled
Archaeologist Monica Hanna

Other looted items included gold and bronze Greco-Roman coins, pottery and bronzedetailed sculptures of animals sacred to Thoth, a deity often represented with the head of an ibis or a baboon.

The museum's ticket agent was killed when the building was stormed, said the Antiquities Ministry.

Under the threat of sniper fire on Saturday, Hanna and a local security official were able to salvage five ancient Egyptian sarcophaguses, two mummies and several dozen other items left behind by the thieves.

The museum was a testament to the Amarna Period, named after its location in southern Egypt that was once the royal residence of Nefertiti.

The area is located on the banks of the Nile River in the province of Minya, 300 kilometres south of Cairo. When Hanna asked a group of teenagers wielding guns to stop destroying the artefacts that remained, they said they were getting back at the government for the killings in Cairo, she said.

"I told them that this is property of the Egyptian people and you are destroying it," she said. "They were apparently upset with me because I am not veiled."

After managing to chase them away, a group of gunmen opened fire to try to force her and the security official to leave. She said the men were apparently also in charge of the boys, who had burned one mummy and partially burned another while pushing around a half-tonne statue from the Old Kingdom of the third millennium BC.

"We were working and lowering our heads so they do not fire on us. There were snipers on rooftops," she said.

The two were able to salvage about 40 artefacts and thousands of broken pieces that Hanna said will take archaeologists years to put back together.

The Egypt Heritage Task Force, a group of Egyptian archaeologists who use social media to try to raise awareness about illegal digging for artefacts and looting, said 1,050 pieces were stolen from the museum.

The head of museums for the Antiquities Ministry, Ahmed Sharaf, said two statues were returned on Monday.

He said police and ministry officials would not press charges or arrest anyone who came forward with looted items and that a small financial reward was available for returned artefacts.

He said that until now, police had been unable to secure the museum.

He accused members of ousted President Mohammed Mursi's Muslim Brotherhood, who have led protests against the government, of being behind the looting and attacks on the nearby police station.

But Hanna said the looting was more likely carried out by heavily armed gangs of thieves who took advantage of the lawlessness to launch a raid on the museum.

The chaos erupted last Wednesday, when security forces in Cairo cleared out two Islamist-led sit-ins demanding that Mursi be reinstated, igniting violence that led to the deaths of more than 1,000 people.

Some looting occurred during the 18-day uprising in early 2011 against autocratic President Hosni Mubarak.

More than 50 items were stolen from the Cairo museum, but Sharaf said around half had since been recovered.

But the looting then or at any other time since was never on the scale seen last week, said archaeologists and ministry officials.