CAIRO — As violent clashes roiled Egypt, looters made away with a prized 3,500-year-old limestone statue, ancient beaded jewelry and more than 1,000 other artifacts in the biggest theft to hit an Egyptian museum in living memory.
The scale of the looting of the Malawi Museum in the southern Nile River city of Minya laid bare the security vacuum that has taken hold in cities outside Cairo, where police have all but disappeared from the streets. It also exposed how bruised and battered the violence has left Egypt.
For days after vandals ransacked the building last Wednesday, there were no police or soldiers in sight as groups of teenage boys burned mummies and broke limestone sculptures too heavy for the thieves to carry away.
The security situation remained precarious Monday as gunmen atop nearby buildings fired on a police station near the museum.
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Among the stolen antiquities was a statue of the daughter of Pharaoh Akhenaten, who ruled during the 18th dynasty. Archaeologist Monica Hanna described it as a “masterpiece.”
Other looted items included gold and bronze Greco-Roman coins, pottery and bronze-detailed sculptures of animals sacred to Thoth, a deity often represented with the head of an ibis or a baboon.
Under the threat of sniper fire Saturday, Hanna and a local security official were able to salvage five ancient Egyptian sarcophagi, two mummies and several dozen other items left behind by the thieves.
The museum was a testament to the Amarna Period, named after its location in southern Egypt that was once the royal residence of Nefertiti. The area is on the banks of the Nile River in the province of Minya, some 190 miles south of Cairo.
When Hanna asked a group of teenagers wielding guns to stop destroying the artifacts that remained, they said they were getting back at the government for killing people in Cairo, she said.
“I told them that this is property of the Egyptian people, and you are destroying it,” she said Monday. “They were apparently upset with me because I am not veiled.”
The Egypt Heritage Task Force, a group of Egyptian archaeologists who use social media to try to raise awareness about illegal digging for artifacts and looting, said 1,050 pieces were stolen from the museum.
The head of museums for the Antiquities Ministry, Ahmed Sharaf, said that until now, police have been unable to secure the museum. He accused members of ousted President Mohammed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood of being behind the looting and attacks on the nearby police station.
Hanna said the looting was more likely carried out by heavily armed gangs of thieves.