28 Aug 2013

Mummies set on fire as looters raid Egyptian museum

Ancient Egyptian artefacts including jewellery, pottery, coins, sculptures were stolen and two mummies set on fire during unrest across the country, says an archaeologist.

Video courtesy of Monica Hanna

In the latest round of violence that gripped Egypt after security forces cracked down on supporters of the ousted Mohammed Morsi, vandals looted a museum in the upper Egyptian town of Minyai. Monica Hanna, an Egyptian archaeologist, said the attack was the worst of its kind since the Egyptian revolution of 2011 in which Egypt’s famous Cairo Museum was also broken into and looted:

“I think we are missing around 500 objects which is a huge loss because when the break (in) happened here at the Egyptian museum [in Cairo] the loss was around 50 objects, so imagine this loss is ten times bigger than what we lost at the Egyptian Museum”.

‘Egyptian masks shattered’

The raiders in Minya not only stole artefacts including jewellery, pottery, coins and sculptures, but also set fire to two mummies and smashed up any other artefact that was too big to carry away.

“From the Malawi Museum I think there were around 791 objects that were in the register. We salvaged 45 objects and around 170 objects were returned, and a lot was destroyed as well.

All the Egyptian masks were shattered, the pottery was broken and two mummies were burned, or a mummy and a half,” Ms Hanna added. At least one person – the museum’s ticket agent – was killed in the robbery, according to the antiquities ministry.

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

Among the stolen antiquities was a statue of the daughter of Pharaoh Akhenaten, who ruled during the 18th dynasty, which Ms Hanna described as a masterpiece.

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

‘Egyptians mad about antiquities’

Under the threat of sniper fire on Saturday, Ms Hanna and a local security official were able to salvage five ancient Egyptian sarcophagi, 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, Pharaoh Akhenaten’s Queen.

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The area is on the banks of the Nile River in the province of Minya, some 300 kilometres (186 miles) south of Cairo.

Since the revolution, Ms Hanna has observed on satellite imagery a worrying increase in the number of illegal excavation sites across the country where many undiscovered treasures remain buried in the sand.

“The Egyptian population is mad about going out and digging for antiquities. People dig under their houses, people dig on archaeological sites. It’s really out of control,” said Ms Hanna.