Amid the protests that erupted in Egypt on January 25, looters broke into the Egyptian Museum in Cairo via a glass window on the roof and proceeded to break and damage a number of display cases and artifacts, apparently in a frantic search for gold. In the days and weeks that followed, numerous reports and rumors swirled on the news and on the internet that many of Egypt’s ancient sites were also being attacked by looters, including the tombs of Saqqara.
Saqqara is a large complex located almost 20 miles southwest of Cairo that functioned as the main necropolis of Memphis, a capital of ancient Egypt. It features the pyramids of 17 Egyptian kings—the most famous of which is the Step Pyramid of Djoser from the 27th century B.C.E.—as well as countless other tombs of royalty and high officials, including that of the 14th-century B.C.E. vizier Aper-El. The site was an active burial ground and cultic area for 3,000 years, remaining in use from the time of the First Dynasty (c. 3000 B.C.E.) through the Roman period (first century B.C.E.). Many of the tombs and monuments are locked and closed to the public (the tomb of Aper-El had to be unlocked specially for BAR’s visit in mid-January, as shown below).
After reports of looting began to circulate in late January, Egyptian officials (including Zahi Hawass) scurried to confirm or deny the truth of the rumors and to check on the status of the antiquities. Although some 70 objects at the Cairo museum were damaged during the break-in, the restoration work began immediately. In early March it was determined that, contrary to earlier reports, some 54 artifacts from the museum’s collection were missing, including pieces of gilded wood and stone statuary. At the time of writing, more than a dozen of the objects had been recovered and a few thieves had been arrested.
Reports about damage to open-air sites like Saqqara have been more difficult to confirm, but on March 3, Hawass posted a statement online confirming that several pharaonic sites had been attacked throughout Egypt, including multiple tombs and storage magazines that were broken into at Saqqara, as well as at nearby Abusir, Dahshur, Giza and storage facilities in the Sinai. In addition, stone blocks had been damaged or stolen, and looting and illegal excavations were occurring “almost nightly” at sites across Egypt, according to Hawass. He said that security forces were unarmed and thus easily overwhelmed by armed looters.
Islamic monuments were also among those attacked, but Hawass announced that Egypt’s Jewish synagogues and Christian churches were unscathed. BAR received unconfirmed reports that the tomb of Aper-El and its storage facilities were still sealed and unharmed.
In late February Egypt reopened its museums and ancient sites, but the situation remains difficult. It may still be weeks or months before the full extent of the looting can be accurately determined.—D.D.R.