Preserved for millennia, Egypt's artifacts fall prey to Egypt's protests

More than 1,000 Egyptian artifacts have been stolen from the Mallawi museum, which was ransacked the same day police violently dispersed Islamist sit-ins in Cairo.

Roger Anis/El Shorouk Newspaper/AP
Rows of display cases are broken and empty at the Mallawi Antiquities Museum after it was ransacked and looted on Aug. 14, when mobs across the country attacked churches, Christian homes and shops, police stations, and government institutions after police forcefully dispersed two Islamist protest camps, in Mallawi, Egypt, Aug. 17, 2013.

The center of this town still bears the signs of the angry mob that ransacked it two weeks ago. A burned-out car sits in front of the torched local council building. Sandbags are piled next to the entrance of an officers' club next door. Rocks and and a makeshift barricade of paving stones litter a street. Black heaps of wire and ash mark the place tires were burned. 

Next to the council building is the Mallawi museum, built to resemble an ancient Egyptian temple and now in ruin.

Windows are broken and several rooms are burned out. In the high-ceilinged main rooms, where artifacts of the 18th dynasty of ancient Egypt from as early as the 1350s BC used to sit in neat display cases, piles of shattered glass now litter the floor. The broken cases stand askew or toppled over, their contents gone except for a few broken shards of ancient pottery. Handwritten display cards explaining the exhibits lie scattered throughout the rubble.

The museum was looted and ransacked on Aug. 14, when mobs across the country attacked churches, Christian homes and shops, police stations, and government institutions after police forcefully dispersed two Islamist protest camps. The devastated museum serves as a reminder of the toll that Egypt's two and a half years of upheaval – including the most recent episode – have taken not only on Egypt's people, but also on their history.

Among the more than 1,000 artifacts stolen from the Mallawi museum were “special masterpieces,” says Monica Hanna, an Egyptian archaeologist who has been working to draw attention to the looting and destruction of archaeological sites in recent years. She traveled to Mallawi to salvage what was left of the artifacts there soon after the attack. The damage will not be felt just by historians and archaeologists like herself, but by the people of Mallawi, she says.

“It was part of the community that is lost. It had great value to the community of Mallawi,” says Ms. Hanna. School children would regularly visit the museum and, when she was there after the attack, young people told her how they used to visit the museum to sketch the artifacts.

“The community itself is very upset," she says.

One of the stolen artifacts was a statue of the daughter of Akhenaton, the father of Tutankhamun and husband of Nefertiti. He was notable for instituting the worship of one god, rather than the pantheon of ancient Egyptian gods, during his reign from roughly 1350 to 1334 BC. The period of his rule was marked by art that depicted the ruler and others with exaggerated features, a stark departure from previous depictions. The stolen statue of his daughter “is one of the very rare masterpieces,” says Hanna. Artifacts from the Graeco-Roman period, animal mummies, and other items were also stolen or destroyed. 

Many archaeological sites in Egypt have suffered looting and destruction since the uprising that unseated former President Hosni Mubarak in 2011 and ushered in a period of upheaval. Not far from Mallawi, looters come to the site of Antinopolis to dig for artifacts every day.

The Mallawi museum was ransacked after the police attacked the protest camps in Cairo filled with supporters of deposed president Mohamed Morsi, killing hundreds. A violent crowd gathered in the city center, and though there were several tourism police stationed outside, they were no match for the armed mob and fled, according to museum employees. The attackers shot and killed the museum's ticket seller before breaking in, burning administrative rooms, and ransacking the museum. 

Museum employee Nazih Hosni says the attackers took 1,043 pieces, leaving fewer than 50 behind. “They only left the big pieces they could not carry,” he says. “And those, they broke.” He said the attackers ransacked the museum throughout the night. Though the museum is only a block from the police station, security forces did not intervene.

Hanna decided to go to Mallawi when she realized that authorities were not sending anyone to salvage what was left, she says. When she arrived, “I told them I'm not leaving until you properly remove the objects and put them in a safe place,” she says.

The tourism and antiquities police helped remove the objects the following day. They managed to salvage wooden sarcophagi, human and animal mummies, papyrus, and other fragments. But many objects were not just stolen but destroyed.

The head of UN cultural agency UNESCO, Irina Bokova, said in a statement on the attacks on Egypt's cultural institutions that they constitute “irreversible damage to the history and identity of the Egyptian people.” The organization offered to help Egyptian authorities prevent the trafficking of the objects outside Egypt. 

The police announced that anyone who returns stolen objects will not be prosecuted, and have so far recovered at least 131 artifacts.

But at the museum, employees stood watch over the ransacked interior and mourned the loss of their colleague as well as the artifacts. “Everyone who comes talks about the antiquities, but no one mentions the name of the one who died,” says employee Majdi Tohamy. “Write his name – Sameh Ahmed Abel Hafiz.”

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