The famous Step Pyramid of Pharaoh Zoser (Djoser), seen from the Great Jubilee Court. Saqqara, Egypt. iStockphoto

Egyptian museums "safe" following looting

Simon Stephens, 02.02.2011
Army protecting country's museums and monuments, say experts
Internationally renowned Egyptologist Zahi Hawass has claimed that the looting of museums, monuments and other historic sites in Egypt following anti-government unrest has not been as bad as initially feared.

Hawass, who was recently appointed the minister of antiquities, a newly created department that will care for the country’s monuments and museums and absorb the Supreme Council of Antiquities, said: “The commanders of the army are now protecting the Egyptian Museum, Cairo, and all of the major sites of Egypt (Luxor, Aswan, Saqqara, and the pyramids of Giza) are safe.

“The 24 museums in Egypt, including the Coptic and Islamic museums in Cairo, are all safe as well. The monuments are safe because of both the army and the ordinary people.”

Hawass added that he believed the majority of artefacts that were stolen from a Sinai store containing antiquities from the Port Said Museum had been returned. And at Saqqara, an ancient burial ground featuring numerous pyramids, looters opened the padlocks of tombs but did not enter the tombs or cause any damage.

Initial concern had focused on the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, where looters broke in on 28 January. But Hawass said: “A total of 70 objects have been broken, but the museum was dark and the nine robbers did not recognise the value of what was in the vitrines. They opened 13 cases, threw the 70 objects on the ground and broke them, including one Tutankhamun case. However, the broken objects can all be restored.”

The international Egyptology community has been calling on museums and private collectors not to buy illicit Egyptian antiquities.

Salima Ikram, a professor of Egyptology at the American University in Cairo, was excavating in Luxor when the unrest began. She has since returned to Cairo and said that there has been some looting at one or two sites near the capital.

“With the army helping, things are very secure,” said Ikram, in an interview with Discovery News [audio clip below]. “But there was this small window when we did not have protection and that is the time when some looting took place. That is why it would be extremely good if people did not buy things.”

Unrest in Egypt: Dr. Salima Ikram in Cairo talks to Discovery News' Rossella Lorenzi. Click here to read more

In the UK, Stephen Quirke, a curator at London’s Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, said the spotlight should be turned on the international antiquities trade.

A statement on Petrie Museum website reads: “There would be no looting without the appetite of US and European collectors, museums, auction-houses and cargo authorities. The Egyptian antiquities’ authorities have full teams of conservators and archaeologists already, but the international community needs to give maximum cooperation against the illegal trade in antiquities.”