Update on illegal activities affecting Egypt's cultural heritage

Storage Magazine Attacked by Armed Robbers on the West Bank, Luxor

At 3:35 am on the morning of Saturday 19th March 19, 2011 an armed gang broke into the storage magazine of the German expedition working at Kom el-Hettan directed by Hourig Sourouzian. Kom el-Hettan is famous for the mortuary temple of Amenhotep III that has the colossi of Memnon standing at its front. The criminals, who had covered their faces, chloroformed and tied up the four site guards and were able to steal two statues. Some of the guards protecting the magazine suffered injuries; that resulted in three of them being taken to the hospital for treatment. The stolen objects was the upper part of a statue of Sekhmet, the goddess of war and healing, measuring 0.59 m; and the second object was the life-size head of Amenhotep III, measuring 0.38 m. The statue of Sekhmet had only been uncovered a few days prior to the theft. These criminals also broke several other artefacts while escaping with the antiquities. Both the site inspector Mustafa Wazery and Dr Hourig Sourouzian were called to the site along with the police and army. After a comprehensive investigation the security forces succeeded in catching the head of the gang and three other members in less than 24 hours, and the stolen statues were located and returned to the magazine. In all, eight people were involved with the theft of the two statues and the police are trying to trace the remaining 4 men. The statues were found hidden inside the Nag’ Khalifa, Qurna home of the 33 year old gang leader, the infamous crook Ahmed El Zot, who for his day job makes replica antiquities to sell to tourists. Three other members of the gang: Shaban Taya Ahmed (Farmer), Hassan El-Azb Hassan El-Rawi (nephew of the gang leader) and Mahmoud Hassan Abu Elmagd (who drives a microbus No. 2963 in Luxor) are also in custody awaiting trial in Qena. The sister of Hassan El-Azb Hassan El-Rawi said that her 21 year old brother used to work for the German expedition and knew where the storage magazine was and also what was kept inside. In El Zot’s house, the authorities found many other stolen antiquities from other sites, including pottery of various shapes and sizes. The sculptor also admitted to making illegal excavations at several sites.

Hawass believes that this situation unfortunately shows the one of the biggest mistakes made by the police; despite the fact that he appointed 8,000 well-educated site guards, is the fact that the police refused to arm and train the guards to use weapons. “Now thieves and criminals can attack the unarmed site guards because the police are not there to provide assistance”.

The Mortuary Temple of Amenhotep III at Kom el-Hettan

In the area of Birket Habu people were caught illicitly digging by local people and handed over to the police. In Kom es-Samak a man was discovered illegally digging at night by the gafirs. This individual had succeeded in excavating about 10 holes before he was caught, but because of the lack of police the gafirs dealt with him on their own by giving him a beating. In the check point at the entrance to Hurghada, two Luxor citizens tried to turn around and run away. The army officer gave chase and stopped them before he searched their car where he found a Pharaonic statue of a woman sitting on the throne covered in dust in sack.

The Wild East (Delta)

Mr Tarek Ibrahim Hoseni, manager of Behira and Port Said antiquities, asked for help to protect Tell Tenis in Lake Manzala from encroachment from modern development. Mr Hoseni said that a group of armed men violated the site by illegally building a commercial fish farm and few huts on antiquities land. The group, which call themselves the ‘Braves’ are also tending animals on the site, but far worse are looting the site, digging large holes looking for antiquities. Mr. Hoseni added that he had filed a report to the tourism and antiquities police on 21st February and 10 days later he filed a further report but the threat still exists as nothing has yet been done about these reports.

Within the lake area there are 22 sites, the most important being Tell Tenis. The majority of the excavated artefacts and portable parts of structures have been housed in magazines, but it is the remains of the settlements, such as the water tanks and the textile factory dated to the Early Islamic era that might be destroyed or demolished by the outlaws who now control the area. The textiles were unique to the island, which gave its name to the Tanis textile during the Abbasid era (750 A.D to 1517) when the Kaaba clothing used to be made there.

On the 29th March the site magazine at Tell el-Dab’a was raided. Prof. Manfred Bietak and Dr Irene Forstner-Muller are helping the police by checking the inventory of items and assessing what has been stolen, at present only five objects appear to have been stolen but several other pieces were broken in the looters haste. .

Update on Qantara

A preliminary list of the artefacts stolen from the Qantara magazine on 29th January was released by Dr Maksoud last week and it appears that the total is closer to 800. A complete inventory of the missing objects is to be sent to the prosecutor general as well as to Interpol to help in their retrieval. Most of these antiquities are from the Ptolemaic and Roman periods, with a lesser amount of Pharaonic and Islamic material. The objects derived from archaeological sites in Ismailia as well as North and South Sinai, which have been scientifically documented and published. The missing objects include of a large collection of clay vessels, bronze coins, scarabs, and amulets, as well as wooden arrows, textiles, amphora and a headless limestone statue inscribed with hieroglyphic text.

The Roman fortress at Qantara taken from the viewing platform

The stolen objects derived from archaeological sites in Ismailia as well as the Sinai, most of which had been recorded and published. The missing objects include of a large collection of amphorae and other types of ceramic vessels, bronze coins, scarabs, and amulets, as well as wooden arrows, textiles, amphora and a headless limestone statue inscribed with hieroglyphic text. Fortunately, the room containing the boxes for the Port Said Museum, Taba Museum, and the Sharm el-Sheikh Museum was not broken into. The Port Said Museum is currently closed for renovations, and 60 boxes of antiquities were being stored at the Qantara Magazine. Taba Museum is also closed for restoration work, and the Sharm el-Sheikh Museum is under construction. As reported earlier, the remaining collection of the Qantara Magazine is safe after being removed to the basement of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, which is guarded day and night by the army.

More on the Looting at Buto

The SCA has sent an inventory of items stolen from Tel El-Fara’in to the prosecutor for investigation, detailing the 27 artefacts stolen from the magazine. According to Dr Maksoud the missing artefacts include 20 bronze coins from the Roman and Islamic eras, a limestone relief engraved with a Ptolemaic text, a statue inscribed with a hieroglyphic text and four pottery vessels.

Gerza is Attacked by Looters

The gafirs guarding the famous Predynastic 600 acre site of Garza in the Faiyum reported on 31st March that armed groups have been illicitly digging for artefacts. This important site excavated by Gerald Avery Wainwright in 1911 and also investigated by Reginald Engelbach in 1912 yielded seven cemeteries containing Middle Kingdom, New Kingdom, Third Intermediate Period, Ptolemaic, Roman and Islamic (which are usually referred to as Riqqeh), as well as the famous Cemetery G that contained around 281 Predynastic graves, 9 Second Dynasty graves and 11 New Kingdom graves. The distinctive pottery from these Predynastic graves was used by Sir W. M. F. Petrie to help create his famous sequence dating, and was the type-site of the Gerzean culture (Naqada II). The gafirs say that armed groups have been coming to the site several times at night carrying automatic weapons, forcing them to leave the area so that they could dig and search for artefacts.

Watchman Ruby Mohamed Abdel Salam said he works in shifts with nine other watchmen to guard site night and day. These guards are armed with 9 mm pistols, which are no match for the automatic weapons used by the armed groups, especially considering the large area of land they are guarding. Abdel Salam also complained that their bullet supplies are running low. One his colleagues, Samir Abdel Dayim, said the armed groups had exploited the security vacuum and attacked the area several times, digging for artefacts all night long and leaving behind dozens of deep holes.

The site of Gerza

The site of Gerza is in desperate need of re-investigation, and this looting activity is seriously affecting the potential of the site for scientific re-evaluation. The modern cemetery attached to the local village had already seriously encroached on the archaeological land; with this new looting activity is further damaging this important site. The gafirs on the site had been fiercely protecting a virgin area of land adjacent to Cemetery G in the hope that archaeologists would come and finish the excavations. It is uncertain if this area has escaped the attentions of the looters, and exactly which areas they have been destroying, but they will probably not be happy to find a load of old pottery vessels, for they are probably looking for gold or statues, neither of which they will find in the Predynastic graves.

Modern cemetery encroaching on the ancient site of Gerza.