Grave robbery and violation of the peace of the dead: Egypt demands restitution of the Shepen-Isis mummy




“Let us fight together for justice, against looting and robbery,” demanded more than 200 first-time signatories from Egypt in an “Open Letter from the Egyptian Scholars and Civil Society ” yesterday from the St.Gallen Abbey Library, the Catholic Church and the City and Canton of St.Gallen. The Open Letter, signed by countless leading Egyptian Egyptologists, archaeologists, human right activists and the senior commissioners for Egypt’s cultural assets and antiquities, and published by Arab and European media, calls for the establishment of a working group and the opening of the archives.


Among the signatories are archaeology professors from countless Egyptian universities, human rights activists, but also Bassem Ibrahim Bassem, Director General of the General Department of Archaeological Sites and Museums of the Ministry of Antiquities. Meanwhile, the official procedure for restitution has been initiated.


Open letter


The “Open Letter from the Egyptian Scholars and Civil Society” thus intervenes in a debate on cultural looted property and the exhibition of mortal remains that has been moving Switzerland for several weeks: the Schepenese case. The body of the ancient Egyptian priestess Schepenese, which is kept in the Catholic Abbey Library in St. Gallen, was stolen from her tomb at the beginning of the 19th century. Unwrapped up to the chest, it is exhibited there in a glass coffin for 18 Swiss francs (19.24 US dollars) per entry fee. Every year, over 150,000 tourists marvel at this “attraction” (Abbey Library) in the city of eastern Switzerland.


This open violation of all valid moral and legal standards led to a scandal following the awarding of the “St.Gallen Culture Prize” a fortnight ago. The artist Milo Rau donated his prize money to the investigation of the case under the motto “Let Schepenese return home”. A “St.Gallen Declaration for Schepenese” signed by 100 Swiss researchers, Egyptologists, historians, artists and politicians demanded an end to the degrading exhibition practice and an examination of Schepenese’s repatriation to Egypt. The letter was signed by leading historians Bénédicte Savoy, Gesine Krüger, Jakob Tanner and Erich Keller, as well as cultural figures from Adolf Muschg to Sibylle Berg and Kim de l’Horizon.


St. Gallen Declaration


The Egyptologist Monica Hanna (University of Aswan), one of the initiators of the “St.Gallen Declaration”, said: “There is no better time than the present to correct the mistakes of the past.” For hardly ever has a moral and legal crime been so clear as in the case of Switzerland’s oldest mummy Schepenese. “That the mummy was grave robbery should be clear to everyone,” the newspaper “Die Ostschweiz” summed up the ongoing debate a few days ago. Even the head of the Abbey Library, Cornel Dora states in “Schepenese. Die ägyptische Mumie der Stiftsbibliothek St.Gallen” (Schepenese. The Egyptian Mummy of the Abbey Library St.Gallen), which he edited: “The coffins of Shepenese originate from a robbery excavation” (p.59)


The Abbey Library and the Catholic Church had initially denied these facts against their better judgement. However, the pressure from politics, science, civil society and the media had finally become too big. In addition to the open letters from Switzerland and Egypt, there were official interpellations in both the municipal and cantonal parliaments of the city in eastern Switzerland. The unusually brutal case of violation of the peace of the dead in the Schepenese case caused an uproar, and countless appeals from politics, research and civil society went to the government and church of St.Gallen. Together with Egypt, St.Gallen now wants to find an ethically and legally acceptable solution.


What do you think? How should human remains from “looted excavations” be dealt with? Is it still justifiable in the 21st century to exhibit a corpse looted in colonial times half-naked for money? How can the “Schepenese case” become a precedent for humane and respectful cultural cooperation? How can we work together with Egyptian research and civil society for a global culture of memory beyond exploitation and dictatorship?


Solidarity with the dead! Let’s set a sign together for a humane and respectful cultural cooperation! Let Schepenese return home!


Questions & Facts


“The order of power must be disturbed.”
Milo Rau on the “Schepenese Case”