How have Egypt’s monuments and museums fared in the ongoing violence, asks Nevine El-Aref
Last Wednesday night, the curse of the Pharaohs seems to have cast its spell over the Upper Egyptian town of Malawi in the Minya governorate, with the town’s archaeological museum being destroyed and looted.
Malawi, once the capital of the ancient Egyptian Pharaoh Akhnaten, was disturbed by violence and deadly clashes between protesters supporting the deposed former president Mohamed Morsi and the security forces after the latter had broken up the sit-ins in the Rabaa Al-Adaweya and Nahda Square in Cairo.
The pro-Morsi protesters broke into the Malawi police station and town council building and then invaded the neighbouring Malawi Museum (MM), clashing with guards and shooting one of them dead. They then damaged the museum garden, damaged the entrance gates, and managed to enter the museum building, breaking into display cases and looting the collection.
The museum is now devastated, its showrooms converted into a mess of broken glass, damaged sarcophagi and the statues of ancient Egyptian kings. Inspections carried out by the MM’s curators revealed that 1,040 of 1,080 objects in the Museum’s collection were missing. Large and heavy artefacts were found broken and scattered over the Museum’s floor.
A full list of the missing objects has been put on the International Council of Museums’ (ICOM) Red List for Egypt in order to prevent them from being illegally smuggled and traded on the international antiquities market. Such lists help police and customs authorities all over the world to recognise missing items.
A report on the state of the MM and the list of missing objects is to be sent to Egypt’s ambassador to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in Paris, Mohamed Sameh Amr, in order to activate the provisions of the UNESCO 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property.
This stipulates that states parties may take appropriate steps to recover any cultural property improperly exported from their country. In the meantime, the looting of the Malawi Museum has shown the damage done by pro-Morsi supporters to Egypt’s cultural, archaeological and historical heritage, their having also damaged a number of churches and historical buildings in other cities across Egypt.
State Minister of Antiquities Mohamed Ibrahim urged the Malawi inhabitants to hand over MM artefacts to the museum’s curator without taking any legal procedures against anyone. He also promised to financially reward those who recover looted statues “for their honesty and cooperation with the ministry to retrieve a piece of Egypt’s heritage”.
One Malawi resident recovered two statuettes depicting the ancient Egyptian deity of prosperity god Osiris. The statuettes are now at the Al-Ashmounein archaeological gallery for restoration.
The curators of the museum also salvaged 30 artefacts that were broken and scattered all over the museum during the looting. These objects include a collection of painted wooden sarcophagi, two mummies and Graeco-Roman stone statues. They also are under restoration.
The Archaeologists Syndicate condemned the damage to the Malawi Museum, describing it as “a crime against the nation’s heritage.” Salah Al-Hadi, coordinator of the syndicate, said in a press statement that the syndicate wanted all ties with foreign archaeological missions, especially American, to be cut and for foreign researchers and students to be prevented from entering Egyptian museums and archaeological sites.
The syndicate had asked the ministry of state for antiquities (MSA) to stop working with foreign archaeological and cultural institutions, especially the American Research Centre in Egypt (ARCE) and Chicago House, because of their country’s “support for terrorism in Egypt” and its reaction to Egypt’s current political turmoil.
This ban, Al-Hadi said, should “continue until foreign cultural and archaeological institutes in Egypt provide their official rejection of their countries’ policy of intervening in Egypt’s interior affairs”.
“We are not happy about our heritage being in the hands of our enemies,” Al-Hadi said, adding that “if the MSA does not accept our demands, our archaeologists will implement the policy themselves and will work to cut cooperation with foreign institutions.”
The looting of the Malawi Museum was not the only crime committed against Egypt’s heritage last week.
On Sunday, the ancient Egyptian royal necropolis of Dahshour 40km south of Cairo was subjected to a failed attempt at encroachment as four vandals invaded the site with digging tools in an apparent bid to build a private cemetery.
The MSA in collaboration with the military and police foiled the attempt and arrested one of the criminals. The other three are still at large, but they are being actively sought by the police.
Seven months ago, the archaeological zone adjacent to the Black Pyramid of Pharaoh Amenhotep III in Dahshour was subjected to encroachment by the inhabitants of the nearby settlement of Ezbet Dahshour, and an armed gang in the area built a collection of private cemeteries.
Following negotiations, the MSA provided the residents with a neighbouring area far from the archaeological site to build their cemeteries. However, this may not have been sufficient, and some have been using the present lack of security and political situation as an excuse to invade archaeological sites.
Dahshour is known for its many pyramids, two of which belong to Senefru, the founder of the fourth Dynasty and father of the Old Kingdom Pharaoh Khufu. There are also other pyramids and tombs from the Middle Kingdom, including the Black Pyramid of Amenhotep III and the White Pyramid of Amenhotep II.
The site features a 600-feddan lake, which attracts different species of birds from all over the world.
Threats have also been received to loot the Al-Bahnasa Archaeological Galleries in Minya. These house a large collection of ancient Egyptian objects that were discovered at the Al-Bahnasa archaeological site and Amarna.
Al-Bahnasa is located on the west bank of the Nile in Minya. In ancient Egypt, its name was Pr-Medjed, derived from the name of a fish that was thought to have swallowed the severed penis of the god Osiris.
In Greek times, it was known as Oxyrhynchus, and more than 100,000 papyrus fragments dating from the Graeco-Roman period have been found at the site, now at the Sackler Library in Oxford.
Additional security forces headed to Minya to tighten security measures and to help MSA guards protect the city’s heritage. Such security measures have been tightened at archaeological sites, museums and galleries across the country in order to protect them from encroachment or thefts.
The attacks on the Malawi Museum and on other sites have raised questions about their security. According to Mokhtar Al-Kasabani, professor of Islamic Archaeology at the Faculty of Archaeology at Cairo University, “the situation is much worse than it was in 2011” during the 25 January Revolution.
Al-Kasabani said that the looting of the Malawi Museum had been “done intentionally” to raise money for the Muslim Brotherhood and Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya groups. Drug-trafficking financed extremist Islamist groups in Afghanistan, he said, and in Egypt finance came from illegal trading in antiquities.
This had been shown by statements made by Brotherhood sheikhs to the effect that the trading in antiquities was legal, as was their destruction. “The largest-ever destruction and encroachment was carried out during the tenure of former prime minister Hisham Kandil,” Al-Kasabani told Al-Ahram Weekly, adding that the encroachment at the Dahshour site and in Old Cairo had caused the greatest destruction during Hisham Kandil’s tenure.
The Brotherhood and Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya wanted the fall of the state in order to gain control of Egypt’s monuments, he said. “The carnage at the Kerdasa Police Station, where members of the groups attacked it and killed its police staff, was an act of revenge against those who had stood against these groups’ crimes against Egypt’s monuments,” Al-Kasabani added.
Al-Kasabani blamed the MSA for negligence in protecting Egypt’s heritage, suggesting that the MSA should have moved the country’s museum collections into storage before the beginning of the protest marches, as had been previously decided.
However, Abdel-Halim Noureddin, dean of the Faculty of Archaeology at the Misr for Science and Technology University, said this would not have been feasible. “It would be impossible to remove the collections of all the museums in Egypt and store them,” he said, adding that the thefts had taken place because of the poor security system installed in the museums and at archaeological sites.
Noureddin suggested that since some thefts had taken place after the 25 January Revolution, the MSA should have strengthened electronic security systems and installed new ones at museums and archaeological sites instead of building new museums and restoring monuments.
He described the looting of the Malawi Museum as a “great disaster”, adding that the MSA should have taken procedures to safeguard the museum further. “The MSA should have provided more than a dozen guards to protect the Museum, not only three, in order to stand against the invaders,” Noureddin said.
He denounced the pro-Morsi protesters for breaking into the museum, though he also said that investigations needed to be carried out to identify the criminals. “As an archaeological expert who has worked for a long time at archaeological sites in Minya, I can say that chaos is a great opportunity for antique thieves and traders, who are strong in Minya, to steal artefacts and smuggle them out for sale on international markets,” he said.
“Such thieves and traders will pursue any opportunity to achieve their goals.”
Noureddin called on the military and police to locate two tanks in front of every museum and archaeological site in Egypt in order to protect them, and not only to tighten security measures at well-known sites such as the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square and the Giza Pyramids.
He called on the interim government to get more involved in Egypt’s heritage because it represented the nation’s history and was one of the sources of the country’s revenue.
“We have to love our monuments because they are part of our civilisation and history,” Noureddin said, adding that “if a building collapses we can easily re-erect it, but if a monument falls into oblivion we can never revive it as those who made it can never be resurrected.”