|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
31 Jan. - 6 Feb. 2002
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Home at long lastAs Egypt celebrates the return of a number of valuable antiquities, Nevine El-Aref traces some intriguing tales of theft and recovery of recent years
Over the last decade, Egypt's efforts through diplomatic channels and in cooperation with museums around the world -- which in some cases were offered objects for sale, in others were approached for authentication -- have resulted in the successful retrieval of several stolen antiquities.
Some of the artefacts which have recently been retrieved. Clockwise from top: painted relief from an Old Kingdom tomb; models of ancient Egypian boats complete with sailors; a Graeco-Roman mummy mask; Gaballa Ali Gaballa of the SCA showing the press a papyrus written in Demotic script
photos: Ayman Ibrahim, Khaled El-Fiqi and Mohamed Mos'ad
The doors began to creak open for the antiquities flow back home almost seven years ago, when a British High Court convicted a British subject, Jonathan Tokeley-Parry, of smuggling Egyptian antiquities. The objects in question were returned to the country in two consignments. The first, which arrived two years ago, comprised 27 papyrus texts in Demotic script dating from 300BC; 12 Coptic textiles; a sixth-dynasty limestone relief of a seated woman named Se-Chess-Hat; a terracotta statue of an unknown person; Graeco-Roman mummy masks; a magnificent bronze statue of the god Horus; an unidentifiable royal head in granite; coloured reliefs from ancient Egyptian tombs, and objects from the tomb of Hetep-Ka at Saqqara. The latter included two false doors, three heads of the nobleman wearing a wig, and a limestone relief showing a butcher at work. The objects are now on display in Cairo's Egyptian Museum.
The second batch of retrieved objects arrived in Egypt in mid- 2001, and included six papyri (one written in Latin and the other five in Greek), and a limestone head of Queen Nefertari, the beloved wife of Pharaoh Ramses II.
MASTERPIECE FROM THE MET: Collaboration with the Metropolitan Museum in New York in the summer of 2001 resulted in the retrieval of a unique masterpiece smuggled to the United States and on exhibition there for the last 60 years. This was a 19th-dynasty relief, 49cm high and 31cm wide, depicting an unidentified goddess breast-feeding the Pharaoh Seti I as a child. This had been stolen from a small chapel at Mit Rahima, ancient Memphis, and was part of a larger representation which included a smaller figure of Seti I. Only part of the Pharaoh's head was preserved in the lower left-hand corner of the relief. The manner in which the goddess bends her head and shoulders suggests, from better preserved parallel works, that she is offering her breast to the Pharaoh, who will thus receive divine nourishment.
The relief was owned for many years by Mrs Richard Rogers, the wife of the American composer. It was sold to another private collector on 22 May 1981 at a Sotheby's sale of Classical, Near Eastern and Egyptian antiquities. The latest owner, who inherited the piece from the Sotheby purchaser, loaned it to the Met in June 1996, where it was put on display at the museum's Egyptian art gallery until April 2001 when, quite by chance, Jacobus Van Dijk, a Dutch Egyptologist with a special interest in, and expertise on, the monuments of ancient Memphis, recognised it. On examining the relief, he recalled that he had last seen it in the decorated chapel of Seti I.
On his return to the Netherlands, Van Dijk confirmed his impression by referring to the paper read at a conference held in Paris in 1986 and published in 1988 under the title Memphis et ses Nécropoles au Nouvelle Empire: Nouvelles données, nouvelles questions. He discussed his observations with other colleagues, and steps were taken to notify the Egyptian authorities. The Metropolitan Museum purchased the piece from its latest owner, took official possession of it, and returned it promptly and without difficulty to Egypt.
DOCUMENTS FROM FRANCE: Three years ago, the Egyptian Academy for Scientific Research was the scene of a special ceremony at which the French authorities, in cooperation with the Friends of Ferdinand de Lesseps and the Suez Canal, now a private French association, turned over to Egypt microfilm of 400 documents of great historical importance. They shed light on the digging of the Suez Canal, which began in 1859 and took ten years.
The documents included letters outlining political, financial and technical matters exchanged between the French government and the former Anglo-French Suez Canal Company, and maps featuring the construction of cities along the canal's western bank: Suez, Ismailia and Port Said.
These rare documents, which cast light on the history of the vital waterway, will be displayed at the new Alexandria Library and also be made available on computer disk.
PRIVATE COLLECTOR: For the first time ever, a private antiquities collector licensed to retain registered antiquities in his possession has offered his whole private collection to the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA). It comprises 400 genuine antiquities, including Pharaonic masks, scarabs, wooden boxes decorated with coloured scenes, terracotta statues, earthenware utensils, Graeco-Roman coins, Coptic textiles, Islamic pottery and glass lamps decorated with geometrical designs. He also gave up his collection of replicas.
Mohamed Khattab kept the treasure in his home for 40 years, but decided to donate it to the state so as better to protect it. He said he took the decision after his home was the target of a failed burglary attempt. "An antiquities broker once offered me an enticing LE2 million for my collection," Khattab related. "He asked me more than once, and when faced with my refusal began to threaten me. A few days after one of his futile attempts to make me change my mind, a thief tried to break into my apartment, but ran away when he was spotted by neighbours. It was then that I decided to hand over my collection to the SCA."
BILATERAL COOPERATION: As part of bilateral agreements between Egypt and Jordan aimed at protecting the heritage of each country, 28 Pharaonic and Roman antiquities, most of them stolen from illicit digs, were turned over to Egypt early in 2001. Among the treasures were scarabs with hieroglyphic texts engraved underneath, 21 wooden ushabti statuettes (each 10cms long), and four amulets of ancient Egyptian gods dating from the Late Period. The treasure was handed over at a ceremony to mark the occasion at the Egyptian Embassy in Jordan. The pieces are now in the Egyptian Museum, where they will shortly be put on display in a special exhibition.
Ten months before, Jordanian police had learned that an illegal batch of weapons and drugs was hidden in a large container crossing the Jordanian-Egyptian border. Jordanian security intercepted the consignment and found that it also contained Egyptian antiquities.
The treasures were carefully packed and despatched in a diplomatic pouch to protect them from damage.
BATTLES OLD AND NEW: An agreement was signed between Israel and Egypt in 1992 stipulating that all antiquities excavated in Sinai during the Israeli occupation between 1967 and 1982 were to be returned, including those in private collections. Egypt recovered the plundered objects by 1995. They are on show at the Al-Qantara Sharq Museum on the east bank of the Suez Canal.
These artefacts were returned in four batches, despatched through the border town of Rafah. The first consignment was received in April 1993 and the last in December 1995. The objects included a large number of clay artefacts and pottery dating back to Prehistoric, Pharaonic, and Graeco-Roman times, some with Hebrew inscriptions; bronze statues of ancient Egyptian deities; tools and utensils for daily use; ornaments, coloured ceramic fragments and miscellaneous wooden and metal items; and nine well-preserved Graeco-Roman tombstones.
Regarded as one of the most important items among the returned antiquities was a large statue of the cow-goddess Hathor. Beneath its chin is a smaller statue of an unknown Pharaoh, believed to date from the New Kingdom.
What of the so-called Moshe Dayan collection? "There is a collection of which we know very little belonging to the late Israeli minister of defence who was a known antiquities collector," says Abdel-Halim Noureddin, dean of the faculty of archaeology, at Fayoum University. "This collection was illegally unearthed during the Israeli occupation of Sinai and was never registered. Consequently, we cannot demand its return."
Noureddin said it was rumoured that after Dayan's death some of the objects in his collection were sold by his wife to international museums, while others are on display "somewhere inside Israel."
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