Egypt’s Antiquities Minister says some 1,050 artifacts spanning 3,500 years of history were looted from the Malawi National Museum south of Cairo last week, highlighting the fragile security situation in the provinces and the threat the latest unrest poses to the nation’s treasure trove of antiques and manmade marvels.
Photos of the Malawi National Museum, captured on Saturday, show rows of display cases broken and emptied after looters shot dead a museum employee and ransacked the institution between Thursday evening and Friday morning. Local reports suggest that vandals later burned mummies and broke sculptures too heavy to be carted away. Officials say the incident marks the biggest attack on an Egyptian cultural institution in living memory.
Unesco Director-General Irina Bokova stated Monday that she had grave concerns for Egypt’s cultural heritage following the reports of looting at the museum, as well as the destruction of several monuments of religious importance, including churches and mosques in Upper Egypt, Fayoum and Cairo.
“I firmly condemn the attacks against the cultural institutions of the country and the looting of its cultural property,” she said. “This constitutes irreversible damage to the history and identity of the Egyptian people.”
Bokova urged Egyptian authorities to ensure that all heritage sites, including museums and historic buildings, remained protected. She also appealed to the Egyptian authorities to act now to prevent the trafficking of stolen cultural objects from the Malawi National Museum, and pledged Unesco support to mobilize partner organizations of the 1970 Convention against Illicit Traffic of Cultural Heritage.
“Egypt’s exceptional cultural heritage is not only an inheritance of the past, reflecting its rich and diverse history; it is also a legacy for future generations, and its destruction seriously weakens the foundations of Egyptian society,” she said.
All missing artifacts from Malawi (Mallawi), about 300 kilometers (190 miles) south of Cairo, will be placed on Unesco’s red list in an attempt to stop them from being illegally smuggled and sold on the international antiquities market once the Museums Department at the Ministry of State of Antiques finishes its investigation.
The Malawi National Museum was known for its large collection of artifacts discovered at the nearby archeological sites of Tell el-Amarna and al-Ashmounein. The displays spanned ancient Egyptian history from Greco-Roman artifacts to monotheistic Pharaoh Akhenaton.
Curators sent about three dozen artifacts that remained at the museum Saturday for restoration, according to Egypt’s Heritage Task Force, including five painted sarcophagi, two mummies and a papyrus handwritten in Demotic.
“The objects are safely now in al-Ashmounein magazine because we could not leave them in the mayhem of thugs in the city center of Malawi,” the group, which uses social media to raise awareness, said on its Facebook page Monday. “The police have been the heroes of the day, because they showed up on their own personal responsibility.”
Egypt’s Heritage Task Force reported that looters also attempted to forcefully break into the archaeological museum of el-Bahnassah in Beni Mazar over the weekend, but were dispersed. Antiquities Minister Mohammed Ibrahim called on anyone with stolen antiquities to return them immediately for a reward, rather than a penalty.
Police have blamed the looting of Egypt’s museums on supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, who have retaliated over the violent dispersal of two sit-ins last week that resulted in some 1,000 deaths. Many archeologists, however, say it’s more likely that unaffiliated gangs of thieves are taking advantage of the relative lawlessness in Egypt.