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Biggest museum theft in Egyptian history: Over 1,000 artifacts stolen

Published time: August 20, 2013 12:29
Edited time: August 22, 2013 10:59
A worker displays pages from the ancient document "Le Description de L'Egypt" salvaged from the ruins of the Scientific Institute of Egypt near Tahrir Square in Cairo (Reuters / Amr Abdallah Dalsh)

A worker displays pages from the ancient document "Le Description de L'Egypt" salvaged from the ruins of the Scientific Institute of Egypt near Tahrir Square in Cairo (Reuters / Amr Abdallah Dalsh)

As Egypt plunges deeper into the political turmoil, looters take advantage of the situation – and the latest robbery of the Malawi Museum in the city of Minya, 300km from Cairo, has been the biggest of its kind in the Egyptians’ living memory.

Looters got away with more than 1,000 objects, including a prized 3,500-year-old limestone statue, ancient beaded jewelry, gold and bronze Greco-Roman coins, pottery and bronze-detailed sculptures of animals sacred to Thoth, one of the ancient Egyptian deities represented with the head of an ibis.

The building was initially vandalized last Wednesday, with looting and burning going on for almost a week now. Local teenagers burned and destroyed mummies and other objects of art which were too heavy for robbers to carry.

The museum’s ticket agent was killed as the theft took place, AP reported.

There were no police or troops nearby to prevent thieves from helping themselves.

Archaeologist Monica Hanna, as well as a security official, threatened by sniper fire, managed to save about 40 artifacts, including five ancient Egyptian sarcophagi, two mummies and several dozen other items left behind in the street by the thieves.

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

Two statues were returned on Monday, according to the head of museums for the Antiquities Ministry, Ahmed Sharaf. The official also stressed that no charges would be pressed against those who will come forward with the looted objects. Moreover, a small reward will even be given for the returned artifacts.

Meanwhile, UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova 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," Bokova stressed.

Of course this isn’t the first major looting to have happened on Egyptian soil since the 2011 uprising: during the 18-day revolution, looting took place all over the country. In particular, over 50 items were stolen from the Cairo museum. However, the head of museums Sharaf said that about half of the items were recovered at that time.

In December 2011, up to 200,000 rare books were destroyed by the blaze in the building of the Egyptian Scientific Institute in Cairo.

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