The three thieves came equipped with handheld diggers, a heavy crane and some mighty big plans.
“The public prosecution has ordered the arrest of three suspects for four days pending investigations,” the statement said Tuesday, without identifying any of their names.
It was not immediately clear how much progress the thieves had made in dislodging the 10-ton carving from its position, or whether the statue was damaged in the process.
“It’s about 3 meters [yards] long and 1 meter wide,” officials said of the artifact, adding that experts had confirmed its status as an antique. “The effects of the digging operation were noticed around it,” the statement said, noting also that the nearby area was not fenced.
A photo shared by the Ministry of the Interior showed three people with blurred faces standing beside the statue with a shovel, pickaxe and two buckets.
Ministry officials said the statue of Ramses II, who ruled ancient Egypt in 13th century BC, was made of granite.
Prosecutors said they found videos of excavation works and statues — including possible antiquities — in the messaging apps on the suspects’ phones. They ordered investigations into others who may have helped the thieves.
Egypt’s Aswan Governorate, located some 500 miles up the Nile River from Cairo, is home to a number of magnificent archaeological treasures — including the Abu Simbel complex, constructed by Ramses II. Fronted by four colossal 68-foot statues of the ancient pharaoh, the site’s Great Temple was carved out of solid rock and is a protected UNESCO World Heritage site,
The theft of ancient treasures from protected sites to sell on the black market has long been a significant concern for Egyptian authorities.
In 2013, Egypt’s Antiquities Minister Mohamed Ibrahim wrote in The Washington Post that “looting is a centuries-old business and a crime that Egyptians will no doubt be fighting for years.”
A study of satellite images, published in 2016 in the journal Antiquityfound that the looting of the country’s archaeological sites was even visible from space and had spiked to even greater levels following the 2011 Arab Spring uprising.
“Thieves are raiding our archaeological sites and selling their findings to the highest bidders,” Ibrahim wrote at the time. “They are taking advantage of Egypt’s security situation to loot our nation’s economic future and steal from our children.”
Sarah Parcak, professor of anthropology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, has researched looting patterns across Egypt and said it has been taking place since ancient times.
“You have thousands of sites and while the major sites, the tourist sites, are well guarded, some of the more rural sites — it is impossible to have full-time site guards,” she said in a telephone interview. “What causes people to loot sites? This isn’t necessarily a get-rich-quick scheme. More often than not, people who loot are doing it because they need to feed their families.”
She admitted though that the latest incident, targeting an entire statue, was a “different level.”
“To loot a 10-ton statue, I mean it’s not like you can put it in the back of your car and go,” she said. “I’ve moved multi-ton stones in Egypt and that’s a process that takes days, and it’s not safe.”
“I’ve done a lot of research on looting, and generally speaking yes people use equipment on sites, but cranes?”
In recent years officials have made some progress in their crackdown on the illegal trade of stolen artifacts.
Cairo authorities facilitated the return of over 29,000 smuggled antiquities from across the world in the past seven years, Ahmed Khalil, chairman of the board of trustees of the Anti-Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing Unit, said in June, the Egypt Independent reported,
Earlier this month Egyptian authorities said an ancient wooden coffin had been returned to the country from the Houston Museum of Natural Science after US officials determined it had been illegally taken years ago. the Associated Press reported,
Ellen Francis contributed to this report.
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