In Egypt turmoil, thieves hunt pharaonic treasures

By Hamza Hendawi

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, May 12 2012 9:28 p.m. MDT

The night of Jan. 28, thieves broke into the Egyptian Museum, located on the edge of Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the anti-regime uprising and scene of some of the bloodiest clashes between protesters and Mubarak's hated police. The robbers made off with 51 pieces that were on display — of which 29 have since been recovered. The most valuable stolen piece, a statue of the Pharaoh Akhenaten, was found by a 16-year-old protester and his family returned it to the museum, the antiquities ministry said at the time.

Soon after Mubarak's Feb, 11, 2011 ouster, the officials said, a Jordanian man was caught trying to smuggle as many as 3,753 artifacts out of Egypt. These, they said, included 48 ancient Egyptian statutes, Roman Age coins and 45 pieces of jewelry dating from the Medieval years of the Islamic era.

The months that followed saw a rash of break-ins at antiquity storehouses around the country.

"At the end, it's a question of security," said Ahmed Mustafa, who until December headed a government department tasked with recovering stolen artifacts. "The robberies of the warehouses took place in broad daylight by armed thieves. Some were raided twice," said Mustafa, who now lectures on archaeology at a private Cairo college.

One of the largest warehouse thefts took place a year ago in the Sinai city of Qantara, from which roughly 800 artifacts were stolen or damaged by thieves. The pieces, according to regional antiquities chief Mohammed Abdel-Maqsoud, were mostly clay pots, bronze coins and spears dating back to pharaonic and Islamic items.

Nearly 300 of these have been recovered, he said.

Now that security has been beefed up at most warehouses, thieves have turned to digging.

Mansour Bureik, the chief archaeologist in the Luxor area, said there was little chance treasure hunters would run across gold and gems that they dream of — which are found only in royal or aristocratic tombs.

But Galal Mouawad, a senior archaeologist in the Giza area, said the potential for lucky strikes exist just about anywhere in the country.

"Egyptians have over the centuries settled anywhere in Egypt until they have finally settled along the banks of the Nile," he said. "There is something valuable to be found anywhere."

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