18 February 2011

The Attack on the Egyptian Ancients

Akhenaten making an offering

During the eighteen days of protests in Cairo a 16-year-old boy walked past a garbage bin near the Egyptian National Museum and saw a very surprising item lying on the ground. He picked it up and took it home to show his mother who in turn, called her brother Dr Sabry Abdel Rahman. Dr Rahman is a professor at American University in Cairo. As soon as he saw the discovery he contacted the Ministry of  State for Antiquities Affairs to hand over the priceless statue of Pharoah Akhenaten.

As if it were any piece of trash, the 3,300 year old artefact showing Akhenaten wearing a blue crown and holding an offering table lay near the bin. Fortunately, the statue was intact except for the offering table that was found to be still inside the museum. It is one of the very few statues from the Amarna Period that have been discovered. The damage suffered by the statue was said to be very minor and it will be one of the first artefacts to be cleaned and restored.

Akhenaten (1353-1336 BCE) was the son of Amenhotep III and the most likely candidate for father of Tutankhamun. He is famed as the heretic pharaoh who established the capital in Amarna and introduced a monotheistic religion for the sun god Aten that overthrew the pantheon of the gods.  After his death Egypt returned to the traditional religion. Akhenaten’s name, images and traces of his reign were obliterated.

According to Dr Sahi Hawass, the thieves broke into the museum through the windowed roof and entered by rapelling down ropes. They were reportedly looking for gold and “red mercury” which is, according to Egyptian myths, said to be a magical substance used by the ancients in mummification. They smashed an empty New Kingdom coffin and thirteen display cases.

One of the thieves fell onto this display

In all, eighteen objects were stolen that include two gilded wood statues of King Tutankhamun. So far, four objects have been found. They include the statue of Akhenaten, a statue of the goddess Menkaret carrying Tutankhamun, the heart scarab and shabti of Yuya.

Mask of Yuya

To add insult to injury, other archaeological sites have been looted. The tomb of Hetep-Ka in Saqqara was broken into and the false door was stolen along with other objects stored in the tomb. In Abusire a portion of the false door was stolen from Re-Hotep’s tomb. It was also discovered that the seals on the magazines in Saqqara, including the one near the pyramid of Teti, and the one at Cairo University had been broken. The magazines were used to store large blocks and small artefacts.

The two mummified heads that were determined not to be those of Yuya and Tjuya, the great-grandparents of King Tutankhamun as originally feared. After extensive investigation it is believed that they were non-royal unknowns that had been stored inside a lab and used to test CT equipment.

The senseless and wanton destruction of priceless antiquities in the context of the protests is a complete mystery to me. Thankfully, several of the thieves were apprehended by protesters and policemen in the area and held for detainment by the army. Thereafter, protesters continued to guard the museum. This speaks to the peaceful intentions of the protesters and to the rightful pride in their culture and heritage. It is hoped that the perpetrators of this crime will be punished to the full extent of the law and that the museum will upgrade their security to ensure another incident like this never occurs.

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