First, looters ripped the heads off mummies at the country's antiquities museum. Philip Shenon reports on the desperate drive to keep the golden death mask and Egypt's other treasures from harm. Plus, full coverage of the uprising in Egypt.
Many of the world’s great archaeologists and art scholars fear they are about to relive a nightmare.
Eight years ago, they watched in horror as looters raided Iraq’s National Museum in Baghdad and carted off thousand of artifacts representing much of the archaeological heritage of the Arab world.
Photos: Egypt Protests
Now looters and vandals are threatening a museum that holds treasures that are among the most iconic on earth—the Egyptian Antiquities Museum in Cairo, home to the golden death mask and gem-encrusted jewelry found in the tomb of King Tutankhamen, among tens of thousands of other priceless items that capture 4,000 years of Egyptian history.
“We’re just frozen, paralyzed by what we’re seeing,” said Rita E. Freed, an Egyptologist at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, who said she has been glued to her television set all weekend, watching the images out of Cairo and trying to make out what is happening at the museum in the midst of street protests aimed at ending three decades of iron-fisted rule by President Hosni Mubarak.
The first attack at the Egyptian Museum took place Friday, when vandals made their way into the museum’s exhibit halls and damaged several artifacts, including ripping the heads off a pair of mummies, even as Army soldiers patrolled nearby. The museum is in the heart of downtown Cairo and close to some of the largest anti-government protests. “The pictures I saw of the looting at the museum seem to me to be destruction for the sake of destruction.” Freed said. “It makes no sense to me.”
In the United States and elsewhere outside Egypt, archaeologists, museum curators, and other scholars of the ancient world are frantic this weekend to try to think of ways to help protect the Egyptian Museum and the collections at hundreds of other museums and archaeological storehouses across Egypt that hold the evidence of the life of pharaohs.
But is there anything they can do? Professor James P. Allen, chairman of the Department of Egyptology at Brown University, said he was appalled at the television images this weekend of the torched headquarters of the ruling National Democratic Party—a building that sits directly across the street from the Egyptian Museum and was still smoldering Saturday night. Egypt’s antiquities department warned Sunday that the burned-out hulk of the political headquarters might collapse onto the museum.
“I don’t know that there’s anything that can be done from this side of the ocean,” Allen said. “It’s totally in the hands of the Egyptian military. All we can do is keep our fingers crossed. I think the world community has to be concerned about this. This is not just Egypt’s heritage. This is the cultural heritage of the world that we need to protect.”
He said he was especially concerned about reports that officers of the Egyptian Tourist Police, a unit of the national police with special responsibility for protecting museums and major archaeological sites, had abandoned their posts in the chaos of the last week. “The police seem to have withdrawn everywhere in Cairo,” he said. “The concern is that the museums will go completely unprotected.”
The Egyptian military has vowed to protect the Egyptian Museum and moved additional troops to the museum grounds Saturday night, but the army’s promises are of only limited comfort given the ease with which vandals apparently struck the museum the day before.
For years, visitors to the museum have been appalled by the seemingly inadequate security at the museum, as well as the dusty, decrepit condition of the 99-year-old building that houses much of the collection.
A new, high-tech $550-million museum, the Grand Egyptian Museum, is being built near the Giza Pyramids, far from downtown, to display much of the collection in greater security, but it is not scheduled to open for another two years.
Archeologists and other scholars say the best hope against additional looting at the Egyptian Museum may be rock-star status of the country’s top archeologist, Zahi Hawass, who has inspired millions of Egyptians to take pride in their ancient culture. Hawass has been everywhere in Cairo this weekend, calling on Egyptians to help protect the museum. A regular on Egyptian television and radio over many years, Hawass has spreadheaded diplomatic efforts to convince the United States, Britain and other western countries to return great Egyptian artifacts to Egypt. “I will make life miserable for anyone who keeps them,” he told Businessweek magazine last year.
Freed, the Boston curator, said she was heartened by televised images this weekend of a human chain of Egyptians who gathered around the museum to try to defend it after the initial vandalism on Friday. “When I saw that, I knew there was hope,” she said. “These antiquities are priceless and irreplaceable, and the Egyptian people realize that as much as anyone. More than anyone.”
“I don’t know that there’s anything that can be done from this side of the ocean,” Allen said. “It’s totally in the hands of the Egyptian military. All we can do is keep our fingers crossed."
Brown’s Allen said that “in my own lifetime, over a generation, I’ve seen the appreciation of Pharaonic heritage become much greater among Egyptians.”
Still, he said, “you have a country where millions of people are living on the edge of poverty, if not below the edge.” He said the temptation among some impoverished Egyptians to loot even a small part of that magnificent, glittering heritage, if only to feed a family in the midst of Egypt’s new political chaos, “must be very great.”
Philip Shenon is an investigative reporter and bestselling author, based in Washington D.C. Almost all of his career was spent at The New York Times, where he was a reporter from 1981 until 2008. He left the paper in May 2008, a few weeks after his first book, The Commission: The Uncensored History of the 9/11 Investigation , hit the bestsellers lists of both The New York Times and The Washington Post. He has reported from several warzones and was one of two reporters from The Times embedded with American ground troops during the invasion of Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War.