Mummy's curse powerless against theft of Egypt's artifacts

Egyptian antiquities

June 18, 1996
Web posted at 2:45 p.m. EDT (1845 GMT)

From Correspondent Gayle Young

CAIRO (CNN) -- In Cairo's famed Khan El-Khalili bazaar, merchants hawk the gods and goddesses of ancient Egypt.

Tens of thousands of statues and trinkets are sold here, but none is really old. It's illegal to sell Egyptian artifacts, and the trinkets sold at Khan El-Khalili are pale imitations at a fraction of the price.

But much to Egypt's horror, the real thing is on the market too -- the black market. Archeologists say Egypt is plagued by a sophisticated smuggling operation that sends pirated antiquities to western Europe, where they are sold to private collectors.

"The price of Egyptian antiquities on the international market is increasing every year," explained archeologist Kent Weeks.

Chain saws and pickups


There is nothing new in the ancient land of Egypt. Most tombs were plundered thousands of years ago. Nowadays, Egyptian officials merely try to preserve what's left.

But money to pay for guards and security systems is more scarce than the antiquities are. Modern-day thieves have been known to drive up to tombs with chain saws and pickup trucks.

Thieves broke into one tomb in the mid-1960s and used chisels to hack off the faces of statues to sell on the black market. Since that time, security at the pyramids has increased drastically.

But while the 4,000 tombs at the pyramids are now under 24-hour watch, thousands of tombs in remote locations are proving to be almost impossible to monitor.

"If you dig any place in the desert, you find antiquities," said pyramids director Zahi Hawass. "Then it's very difficult to guard all these sites."

No place is sacred

Egyptian tomb

Antiquities have even disappeared from Egypt's aging Cairo Museum, where some priceless treasures are kept in simple wooden cases locked with thin wire.

Experts say that while museums are a tempting source of illicit goods, most thieves choose to steal less famous pieces from tombs and storerooms across the country.

Archeologists say many of less well-known repositories are heaped with goods that have never even been counted.

"The storerooms are simply not adequate to the task," said Weeks. "They're too small, and they're too poorly protected."

Experts say there are no statistics on thefts of antiquities because no one knows how many artifacts are in Egypt. They believe most of the missing items were never properly catalogued in the first place.

Mummies have been said to curse thieves, but now it is the thieves who are the curse of Egypt.

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