In what is the biggest museum theft in recorded history, over 1000 artifacts were stolen from the Malawi Museum in the city of Minya, 300 km from Cairo, Egypt. It is the biggest robbery in the living memory of Egyptians, and it’s occurred as Egypt plunges ever deeper into political turmoil as looter took advantage of the ongoing unrest to enrich their own pockets.
More than 1000 objects were stolen by the looters. Included was a spectacular 3,500 year-old limestone statue, gold and bronze Greco-Roman coins, ancient beaded jewelry, pottery and bronze-detailed sculptures of animals sacred to Thoth. Toth is one of the ancient Egyptian dieties who are often depicted with the head of an ibis.
Looting and burning has been going on for almost a week now in the area. The museum was first vandalized last Wednesday. Any object of art which was too heavy to move, like mummies and other objects of art, were burned by the local teenagers involved in the thefts.
The AP reported that there was also at least one death as a direct result of the looting, when the museum’s ticket agent was murdered as the looting took place.
The looters were able to steal without being too concerned about repercussions, as there were no police or military troops nearby to prevent the thieves from their pillage of the museum’s antiquities.
About 40 of the artifacts were saved by the brave actions of museum archaeologist Monica Hanna, as well as a security official, who were threatened by sniper fire. The artifacts they saved included five ancient Egyptian sarcophagi, two mummies and several dozen other items left behind by the thieves in the city streets.
According to Hanna:
I told them that this is the property of the Egyptian people and you are destroying it. They were apparently upset with me because I am not veiled.”
Ahmed Sharaf, the head of museums for the Antiquities Ministry, stated that two stolen statues were returned on Monday.
Sharaf, in an attempt to encourage more people to return the stolen artifacts, stated that no charges would be pressed against those who will come forward with the looted objects. Also, as an added incentive, a small reward will even be given for any of the returned artifacts.
According to UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova, who has condemned recent attacks against museums and monuments in Egypt:
Egypt’s exceptional cultural heritage is not only an inheritance of the past, reflecting its rich and diverse history, it is also a legacy for future generations and its destruction seriously weakens the foundations of Egyptian society.”
In another part of her statement of condemnation, Bokova said:
I firmly condemn the attacks against the cultural institutions of the country and the looting of its cultural property. This constitutes irreversible damage to the history and identity of the Egyptian people.”
UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova expresses her great concern for Egypt’s cultural heritage after the looting of the Malawi National Museum (MNM) and the devastation of several monuments of religious importance in Fayoum and Cairo.
This theft of over 1000 Egyptian artifacts is the latest in a string of major looting incidents that has gone on since the 2011 uprising. During the 18-day revolution, looting took place all over the country. For instance,over 50 items were stolen from the Cairo museum. About half of those items, according to Sharaf, have been recovered at this time.
Also, in a tragic loss of ancient literature, up to 200,000 rare books were destroyed by a fire which broke out in the building of the Egyptian Scientific Institute in Cairo that happened in December 2011.
With over 1000 artifacts having been stolen from the Malawi Museum, it is the biggest museum theft in recent history. Lost knowledge and artifacts due to the devastation of war and often the looting which is a part of war are not as important as the loss of human lives, but they are additional unfortunate casualties of warfare that are often irreplaceable.
Written by: Douglas Cobb
Image Courtesy of Eden, Janine and Jim’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License