A complicated basement
A misplaced relief opened up a Pandora's box of questions about the current state of the Egyptian Museum's legendary basement storehouse, Nevine El- Aref reports
Last Sunday, nearly 40 inspectors were sorting through the overwhelmingly large collection of ancient artefacts stored in the basement of the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square. They were frantically looking for a sandstone relief of the Nile god Hapi, which was retrieved in 1985 from Japan. It took a few hours, but they eventually stumbled upon the relief, still in its original wooden packaging.
In 1973, the piece was illegally chipped off a wall of the Ptolemaic temple of Dandara located in the Upper Egyptian city of Qena. The relief was then smuggled out of the country disguised as a replica from the Khan Al-Khalili market. In 1984, it appeared in Japan, which, in turn, returned it to Egypt. After briefly being displayed in the museum itself, the piece was eventually relegated to the basement.
More recently, with plans underway to hold a special exhibition showcasing all of the artefacts that have been retrieved from abroad in recent years, Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) Secretary-General Zahi Hawass asked for a photograph and detailed description of the relief for use in an online catalog of the items planned for the special display.
When no such description was delivered, the rumour mill went to work, and claims that the relief had been stolen made their way to the press. That was when the true search for the piece took place. Archaeologist Ayman Abdel-Moneim, a member of the search team, said the recent creation of a new exhibit space in the basement -- and the resulting re-organisation of the basement's contents -- had much to do with the confusion.
Abdel-Moneim said the basement is crowded with thousands of boxes filled with artefacts; every single object is going to be classified by the current inventory process, with the goal being assigning future homes for them in either the museum itself, or the two major new museums currently being planned for Cairo -- the Grand Egyptian Museum near the Giza Plateau and the Civilisation Museum in Fustat.
"Objects not suitable for display will be kept in storage for scholars and researchers," said Abdel-Moneim.
As for the Hapi relief, it will be restored then returned to its original location in Dandara temple.
Last week antiquities police, meanwhile, seized thousands of priceless artefacts from secret tunnels underneath villas belonging to three gold traders, one of whom had previously been convicted in an antiquities smuggling case.
A search of brothers Farouk, Mohamed and Mahmoud El-Shaaer's villas and bazaars resulted in police uncovering documents that also related to the case of the former head of the SCA's retrieved antiquities department, Abdel-Karim Abu Shanab, who was arrested eight months ago along with another archaeological inspector. Abu Shanab is being accused of allegedly receiving a LE25,000 bribe to issue a fake certificate to facilitate the smuggling of 362 objects, including gold and silver coins from the Graeco-Roman and Islamic eras, as well as Pharaonic amulets, ushabti figures, sarcophagi and scarabs.