After 4 years, rare sarcophagi smuggled into Israel to be returned to Egypt

Antiquities Authority held stolen artifacts during deep freeze in bilateral ties, plans handover now new ambassador instated in Tel Aviv

Ilan Ben Zion, a reporter at the Associated Press, is a former news editor at The Times of Israel. He holds a Masters degree in Diplomacy from Tel Aviv University and an Honors Bachelors degree from the University of Toronto in Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations, Jewish Studies, and English.

A wooden Egyptian sarcophagus, confiscated by the Israel Antiquities Authority in 2012, that was set to be returned to Egypt on May 22, 2016 (Courtesy: Israel Antiquities Authority)
A wooden Egyptian sarcophagus, confiscated by the Israel Antiquities Authority in 2012, that was set to be returned to Egypt on May 22, 2016 (Courtesy: Israel Antiquities Authority)

As ties between Cairo and Jerusalem grow warmer, two rare ancient Egyptian sarcophagus lids — plundered from Egypt following the 2011 revolution, smuggled into Israel and held by Israeli authorities for four years — will at last be repatriated Sunday.

Israeli and Egyptian officials confirmed to The Times of Israel that the two artifacts, Bronze Age wooden anthropoid sarcophagus lids, will be handed over to new Egyptian Ambassador to Israel Hazem Khairat at a Foreign Ministry ceremony on Sunday.

The artifacts were found by Israel Antiquities Authority theft prevention agents in a dealer’s store in Jerusalem’s Old City in March 2012, but despite multiple requests by the Egyptian government they remained in climate-controlled storage in Jerusalem since their retrieval.

Israel reportedly agreed to return the sarcophagi to Egypt in August 2012, several months after they were confiscated, but a breakdown in bilateral ties caused the transfer to be put on hold.

Khairat arrived in Israel in February, filling a post that remained empty since 2012, when Egypt recalled its envoy in the wake of Israel’s November operation against Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Since then, relations between the two countries were plunged into a deep freeze when Egypt elected a Muslim Brotherhood president, Mohammed Morsi, then were slowly resuscitated after Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi assumed power a year later.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon said that Israel wanted to return the two artifacts, but that such a procedure was impossible while Egypt had no ambassador in Tel Aviv.

This Egyptian sarcophagus found in April was cut in half to facilitate smuggling (photo credit: courtesy Israel Antiquities Authority)
A wooden Egyptian sarcophagus confiscated by the Israel Antiquities Authority in 2012 which is set to be returned to Egypt on May 22, 2016. (Courtesy: Israel Antiquities Authority)

Sunday’s repatriation ceremony was a “gesture of goodwill and friendship” to Cairo, and one which deserved to be showcased publicly between states with formal ties, he said.

The wooden sarcophagi are coated with plaster and decorated with hieroglyphics and brilliant illustrations.

Carbon-14 dating determined that one sarcophagus was 3,600 to 3,400 years old, from the Late Bronze Age 18th Dynasty, and the second was around 3,000 years old, the Iron Age.

The IAA said in a statement following their confiscation that the sarcophagi were cut in half in order to fit them into suitcases, causing “irreparable damage.”

read more:
Never miss breaking news on Israel
Get notifications to stay updated
You're subscribed