“The meeting at the Zamalek apartment will take place at 11:30 a.m.”: These scant words were exchanged over the phone between Jamila the housekeeper and the Italian Ladi Skakal whose phone number ends with 9203. Mr. Skakal enjoined Jamila to clean the storeroom and get it ready for “certain foreign guests.”
The room in question is separated from the rest of the apartment by a large sliding wooden door. The four-room apartment is located on the fifth floor of a building on Aljazeera al-Wosta street in Zamalek. Mr. Skakal had rented it after selling the previous residence in Heliopolis, and the other one in Fayyoum city. It was to be his last rental before his “final departure from Egypt.”
The Zamalek Apartment
Jamila had never seen anything like that room, “a museum,” she calls it. Inside, there were swords, daggers, old paintings, antique plates, vases with pharaonic patterns, coins, old cooking tools, and statues.
“I’d be working and I would see people go into that room with Ladi to see the artifacts. Later, I learned they were sold and smuggled out of Egypt,” explained Jamila, in fragmented sentences, the importance of this room, which she confirmed included what looked like antiquities.
“The Zamalek apartment” opened its door for us to track the smuggling of valuable pharaonic antiquities from the residence of an Italian citizen to a private shipping company where the stolen art is wrapped in parcels, loaded onto a container and transported from the port of Alexandria to Salerno in Italy.
The parcels’ journey out of Egypt
The parcels’ journey out of Egypt
“No parcel comes out of Egypt unless it is manually inspected and examined by inspectors at outlets” according to one inspector at the parcels department of the Egyptian Postal Authority, whom, for safety reasons, we will give the pseudonym Magdy.
The parcels department is one of three units responsible for international shipping, together with customs, and the committee of inspectors who check the parcels for stolen antiquities.
Magdy Ibrahim, the parcel inspector, said that parcel inspection is done only through manual inspection by staff, so the inspection process depends on the integrity or vigilance of the parcel inspector, without relying on modern equipment to reveal the parcel’s contents, indicating that the parcel sector is headquartered in Ramses – Central Cairo.
The Pharaohs’ last journey
In January 2017, Skakal and his collaborators decided to smuggle more than a ton worth of pharaonic antiquities. The following month, a shipping company belonging to a certain person with the initials “M.G.” began wrapping the parcels, and a container was rented from a maritime company in al-Attareen district in Alexandria.
To cover up the operation without problems, they had to include some home furniture for an Italian citizen’s apartment in the neighborhood of Zamalek. So the “shipping company” covered the artifacts within 22 parcels out of 132 total cargo.
According to the documents we were able to peruse, three out of the seven bills of lading belong to the Italians. They are numbered 328 and 326 and dated 2 May 2017.
Of the three Italians, all of them are former diplomats at the Italian Embassy in Egypt, among them Ladi Scaccale, the former honorary consul of Italy in Luxor, who began his work on 11 March 2006. Diplomatic immunity was lifted from him after his mission in Egypt ended on June 21, 2015, but he spent 21 months in Cairo being prepared for his “last exit” with the antiquities.
According to a customs certificate issued on 3 May 2017, the shipment also contained parcels belonging to four Egyptians, including “furniture” to a woman living in London and posing as“Najwa al-Zahabi.”
That pseudonym was calculated to present her as the daughter of a prominent official under the rule of former president Hosni Mubarak. Her father allegedly wished to gift her “authentic Egyptian furniture” for her London home.
Wrapping the parcels
Documents and recordings we acquired show that the shipping company gathered all the parcels in a warehouse in Omraneya, Giza. Stored in 20 cardboard boxes, those parcels contained 21,660 pieces of antiquities, including 195 statues dating back to the Dynastic Period and collected by Skakal throughout his year at the Zamalek apartment, with the intention to ship them abroad by the end of April 2o17.
The shipping company added to the artifacts 110 additional parcels of home furniture and personal belongings to deceive the inspectors.
The registered data for the container carried the number 328/2017, and contained, according to the printed data on every parcel, “glasses, vases, kitchen tools, tableware, personal belongings and furniture.”
In order to send parcels abroad, the shipping company must communicate with government agencies, including the Egyptian Postal Service and Customs Authority.
Should the two entities report any suspicious item, a special committee of inspectors intervene to assess the value of the artifact.
Magdy who has been an inspector for 20 years, said that checking the parcels is done in two steps: first the size, weight and the way it is stored, then the parcel is examined by hand, to see whether any pieces are suspected to be antiquities and need the intervention of the Protection Committee.
Magdy added that the antiquities committee holds weekly meetings to inventory suspicious parcels, and has the final say as to whether to release or seize a package. Magdy accused the private shipping companies of facilitating the smuggling of antiquities abroad.
Before the parcel is shipped, it goes through a second phase of inspection. The customs authority explains in its list of regulations, published on its website, that the procedure is done only after the designated official reviews the export certificate of quantities, and fills out a form for the parcels. Packages are shipped via four customs portals: the airport, Port Said, Damietta and Alexandria seaports.
On 3 June 2018, the department of Legal Affairs in Alexandria seaport announced that the port is in no way responsible for the contents of any parcel.
Into the heart of Europe
On 5 May 2017, the ship Aldea left the port of Alexandria directly for Salerno in Italy, carrying container no. 4827, which contained 132 parcels, 22 of which contained antiquities, weighing 1,250 kilograms.
In June 2018, and according to the shipping documents, the Alexandria seaport stated that the parcels belonged to a diplomat, and therefore had no right to check them. At the same time, a report issued a month earlier had stated that Ladi Skakal had served his diplomatic term in Egypt in 2015.
June 2017 – a procedural error
According to Frank Jumni, the captain of Aldea, the ship arrived in Salerno on May 9, 2017.
However, the container no. 4817 remained on the dock for a whole month. A mistake in the name of the shipment’s owner led to delaying its delivery, and the Italian shipping company waited for the mistake to be rectified.
After a month had passed without anyone claiming it, the port authorities moved the container to a storage area. The Italian police sought and received the permission of the deputy attorney general Katia Cardello to open it.
In July 2017, the police opened the 22 wooden boxes, and after inspection, they suspected the presence of original antiquities.
But it is not until March 9, 2018 that Egypt was officially informed that the container held 28,000 pieces of original antiquities dating back to the Dynastic Period.
Ms. Cardello officially accused Skakal of engaging in the illegal activity of smuggling antiquities.
The secret excavations in Upper Egypt
We reviewed an official two-page investigation letter, sent by the Police of Tourism & Antiquities to the Public Prosecution Office in Egypt, concerning investigations related to the smuggling of antiquities from Egypt to Italy.
Dated May 30, 2018, the letter said the smugglers obtained the artifacts by secret excavations in Upper Egypt, in breach of the Antiquities Act.
Such secret excavations have become ubiquitous. Arrests of prospectors and thieves are proliferating. Last December, observers from Free Treatment Department in the Ministry of Health, found 431 antiques hidden in parcels inside one of Al-Fashn Kidney Center’s rooms―located in Beni Suef city, northern Upper Egypt―according to Mostafa Waziri, the secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities of Egypt.
In 2019, the number of arrests over illegal excavation topped 930, according to the data published by the Ministry of Interior. However, there are no official statistics on the numbers of smugglers arrested.
32,000 artifacts are missing
32,000 artifacts are missing
In July 2017, three months after the arrival of the “archaeological shipment” to Italy, the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities announced that Egypt lost 32,638 artifacts, over a period of 50 years. Egypt was only able to recapture 222 artifacts last year and 21,660 coins.
The Italian citizen’s shipment parcel was not the last that left Egypt in the same way. In October 2019, Jamal Al-Jalawi, director of the Kuwaiti Customs Directorate General―announced in a statement that Air Cargo Security brought down a major smuggling operation of five Pharaonic antiquities that were on their way to Kuwait, hidden inside a wooden parcel (No. 3915148), and weighing 65 kg.
The five pieces went through the same stages of inspection described above. However, according to an inspection conducted by the National Council for Culture, Arts and Letters, the inspector did not recognize the statues of Amun-Ra’s, Amenhotep III, a woman putting on a wig, Horus and a Basalt engraved stone.
The Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities has no inventory of the pieces in international museums abroad, but unofficial estimates put them at 756,800.
The UNESCO Convention, signed by Egypt in 1970, criminalizes the sale of antiquities and monuments of any country in another. The country of origin has the right to recover cultural property illegally removed from the state.
Article 41 of the Antiquities Protection Law No. (117) of 1983, amended by Law No. 91 of 2018 states, “Anyone who unlawfully smuggles an antiquity outside the Republic or participates in such an act with his knowledge shall be liable to a life imprisonment term and a fine of not less than LE 1,000,000 and not more than LE 10,000,000, and the antiquity, devices, equipment, machines and vehicles used in the smuggling operation shall be seized.”
Mostafa Waziri, Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities and the head of the special committee which examines artifacts seized in smuggling operations, said that the container they seized in Italy had 21,855 artifacts and 195 pharaonic statues that were smuggled inside “parcels”.
Mr. Waziri assured that the said artifacts were extracted from illegal excavations, in one of the regions of Central Egypt (El-Minya governorate).
Mr. Waziri revealed that, during the parcel inspection, a paper was found with a name on it (which we will withhold) along with an Egyptian phone number. We called. It was switched off.
Contacting the ministry of Foreign Affairs
Essam El-Saghir―chairman of the Egyptian National Post Organization (ENPO) did not return our calls for comment.
Standards on paper
“The Postal-Parcel Department considers that the sender, not the department, is the one who is responsible for the parcel until it gets out of Egypt. These are the standards.” said Magdy. However, the Postal-Parcel Department’s system facilitates the smugglers’ job in Egypt, and the result is a vast increase of artifacts being smuggled outside of Egypt.
This investigation was made possible by the support of “Open Media Hub” information centre, funded by the European Union.
The opinions and ideas in this article do not necessarily reflect that of the European Union.