Statues of pharaohs and other priceless artifacts have not been exempt from the recent riots in Egypt. Vandals stole over 1,000 items and smashed sculptures at the Malawi Antiquities Museum, last Wednesday, in the city of Minya. The museum’s ticket agent was killed during the turmoil. The country has seen looting before, but according to archaeologists and ministry officials, never to this extent.
This ranks as one of the biggest museum thefts in Egypt of all time. The stolen items are from early civilizations dating as far back as the third millennium B.C. One artifact was a 3,500-year-old, limestone statue of the daughter of Pharaoh Akhenaten — ruler during the 18th dynasty from 1353 – 1335 B.C. Queen Nefertiti was his wife.
The city of Minya is the capital of Minya, a governorate. It’s on the banks of the Nile River, approximately 153 miles south of Cairo. The city is nicknamed the “Bride of Upper Egypt” because its location links northern and southern Egypt.
The Malawi Museum contained many artifacts from the Amarna Period — named after the ancient city of Amarna, located south of Minya. Amarna was the capital of King Akhenaten, built after he had received divine inspiration. He was known as the heretic king because he worshipped Aten, a supreme sun deity, instead of the traditional sun gods, Ra and Atum.
Museum items included coffins, masks, hematite stone with hieroglyphic inscriptions, chests and animal sculptures sacred to the deity Thoth — arbitrator of disputes. Numerous gold and bronze Greco-Roman coins and pottery were also stolen.
Archaeologist Monica Hanna and a local security official were able to rescue some of the priceless treasures on Saturday even though they were under threat of sniper fire. Five ancient Egyptian sarcophagi, two mummies and dozens of smaller items were left behind by the looters.
According to Hanna, most of the looting was done by teenage boys with guns. They were retaliating against the government for killing people in Cairo. She said they set two mummies on fire, burning one completely and partially burning another one. A group of older men open-fired in an unsuccessful attempt to force museum officials to leave. Hanna reported that she and another official were working with their heads down as “there were snipers on rooftops.”
Ahmed Sharaf, the head of museums for the Antiquities Ministry, reported that two of the statues were returned to the museum on Monday. Police and ministry officials said they are not going to press charges against anyone who returns the stolen artifacts, but instead, plan to offer a small financial reward.
The Malawi Museum in Minya was not the only museum and historic site in danger during the turmoil. The Great Pyramids were closed as a precaution during the worst day of the violence. The largest museum in Egypt, the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities in Cairo, was also closed. Security leading to the museum was very heavy with 30 tanks lining the streets.
In 2011, the museum in Cairo experienced what the one in Minya went through this time. During an 18-day protest against Mubarak, over 50 items were stolen from the Cairo museum. The Antiquities Ministry has said that half of those artifacts have been found.
As far as the damage done in Minya, archaeologists are working with thousands of broken pieces, some of them no bigger than fragments. It will take years for them to put these back together. The Egypt Heritage Task Force is a group of archaeologists who raise awareness about looting and illegal digging through social media.
The ancient civilizations of Egypt seemed far removed from the present day turmoil. Their pyramids and city ruins go back thousands of years. Recent riots, though, have seen to it that the ancient artifacts are now included in current events. Perhaps, since some looted items have already been returned, more stolen history will find its way home.
Written by: Cynthia Collins, Senior Museum Correspondent