CAIRO (Reuters Life!) - Security has been tightened around Egypt’s antiquities trove, the target of looters during mass protests, the country’s top archaeologist said on Monday, adding he would now resume a quest to repatriate prized items.
Several Pharaonic-era treasures went missing when looters broke into the Egyptian Museum on January 28 at the height of clashes between police and protesters who eventually deposed President Hosni Mubarak.
Thieves also broke into a warehouse near the pyramids of Dahshour, 35 km (22 miles) south of Cairo, striking twice within the span of a few days and taking hundreds of items.
Some items have since been returned, and security has been reinstated around several tourist sites after the protests died down and a military council took over from Mubarak.
“We are now protecting the Egyptian monuments, we’re putting security everywhere ... we are putting guards with guns everywhere,” Zahi Hawass, the Minister of State for Antiquities Affairs, told Reuters. “People feel the stability now.”
Last week, four Pharaonic items taken from the museum were returned to the palatial building in Tahrir Square, the center of the mass protests.
These included a gilded wooden statue of Tutankhamun, a gilded bronze and wood trumpet and a fan that belonged to the boy king and a small funerary figurine, or ushabti.
To date, 37 objects remain missing from the museum, Hawass said, adding the extent of the looting was minute considering the chaos that swept the city during the protests.
“If the police left New York city or any city in Germany or any other part of the world for a few hours, the locals could damage everything,” he said. “Egypt’s youth protected the museum from major looting and damage.”
Hawass, a celebrity who styles himself on Indiana Jones, the fictional explorer played by Hollywood star Harrison Ford, is a controversial figure within Egypt and the international archaeological community.
He came under fire earlier this year over the looting of the museum after he played down the significance of the pieces stolen. He later admitted that eight valuable pieces from the era of Pharaohs Tutankhamun and Akhenaten were stolen, raising questions about why he had said otherwise.
Experts have suggested the thieves knew exactly what they were looking for.
Hawass, who was promoted to the level of minister of state during Mubarak’s reshuffle after the uprising gathered pace, resigned early March after colleagues accused him of smuggling antiquities. Prime Minister Essam Sharaf reappointed him to his post a month later.
This week, he was named in a court case involving the Supreme Antiquities Council he heads. Local media said he had been sacked, and jailed, but Hawass said his lawyers had stopped all proceedings on Monday.
Hawass, who has spearheaded a long-running campaign to return Egyptian antiquities on display abroad, said that with the security now restored, he would resume efforts to return the bust of Queen Nefertiti, one of ancient Egypt’s most replicated works, from Berlin.
The 3,400-year-old limestone sculpture, famed for its almond-shaped eyes and swan-like neck, has long stirred debate between Germany and Egypt over requests to return it.
“I am defending my country, I am defending antiquities and I will continue to do that,” he said.
Editing by Miral Fahmy