Published February 17, 2011
CAIRO – Egypt said it will reopen historical sites to tourism on Sunday as it sought to revive a key industry shattered in the turmoil that ousted President Hosni Mubarak. Archaeologists were cheered by the recovery of the most important artifact stolen from Cairo's Egyptian Museum, a rare statue of King Tut's father.
A 16-year-old anti-government protester found the statue of the Pharaoh Akhenaten next to a garbage can and his family returned it, the antiquities ministry said.
But damage to Egypt's heritage may have been greater than previously thought, as officials reported new cases of break-ins at archaeological sites.
Zahi Hawass, head of the Ministry of State for Antiquities, had reported a total of 18 missing museum artifacts, three of which were found on the museum grounds, possibly abandoned by looters making their escape.
The antiquities ministry cited Sabry Abdel-Aziz, head of its pharaonic sector, as saying the tomb of Hetep-Ka, in the ancient burial ground of Saqqara, was broken into and a false door was stolen along with objects stored in the tomb. Also, a portion of a false door was looted from the tomb of Re-Hotep in Abusir, the ministry said.
Many archaeological storehouses were also targeted in break-ins, including ones in Saqqara, and ministry officials were trying to determined what, if anything, was missing. They did not say when exactly the vandalism occurred, but the discoveries were part of an inventory conducted in the wake of 18 days of anti-government protests and the security vacuum surrounding Mubarak's ouster on Feb. 11.
The ministry also said the Egyptian military caught thieves attempting to loot the sites of Tell el-Basta, and a tomb in Lischt.
"There have also been many reports of attacks on archaeological lands through the building of houses and illegal digging," it said.
After police and government officials met to discuss security, Hawass announced that "all of the Pharaonic, Coptic, Islamic, and modern sites will reopen to the public" on Sunday, according to a ministry statement.
The pyramids of Giza are already open, but most tourists fled Egypt earlier this month. An outbreak of labor unrest and uncertainty over a military-supervised political transition indicate tourism is unlikely to recover in the short term.
Egyptian officials had said the magnificent legacy of their ancient civilization emerged largely intact from the chaos in Cairo and elsewhere in the country. The spectacle of civilians forming a human chain to protect the Egyptian Museum testified to a sense of national pride in the past that may have averted more widespread damage.
"Egypt is an outdoor museum," said Dr. Robert Littman, a member of the governing board of the Archaeological Institute of America. "There are thousands of sites everywhere, and inevitably when there's disorder, there's always going to be a few who try to take advantage of the situation."
The most important object that went missing from the Egyptian Museum in the upheaval was the limestone statue of the Akhenaten, father of the famed King Tutankhamen. It depicts the standing pharaoh with a blue crown, holding an offering table in his hands. The table was found separately inside the museum.
The antiquities ministry said a youth found the statue, which has an alabaster base, and his mother contacted her brother, a professor at the American University of Cairo. He, in turn, contacted officials to arrange its return on Wednesday. The statue, about one foot (30 centimeters) tall, will undergo restoration before being returned to its display case.
Littman said the statue was "extremely important" because it is one of the few surviving depictions of Akhenaten, who built the city of Amarna and introduced an early form of monotheism, doing away with the worship of the chief god, Amun.
The king ruled for nearly two decades, and after his death ancient Egyptians went back to worshipping Amun, destroying images and statues of Akhenaten.
"It's one of the few that there is," Littman said of the recovered statue. "It's just terrific."