Amid protests and looting, officials work to preserve Egypt's treasures

Egyptian soldiers secured the Egyptian Museum in Cairo from looters on Saturday as anti-government protests continued in the capital in defiance of a curfew. (Jan. 29)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 30, 2011; 4:42 PM

Archaeologists expressed deep concern on Sunday that many of Egypt's historical treasures were threatened by looters in the wake of the nation's uprising, while Egypt's top antiquities official said that all 24 national museums were now under protection of the Army and that damage to the main Cairo museum that shelters thousands of priceless artifacts appeared limited.

Officials in Egypt and American Egyptologists said they were worried, however, about reports of ongoing looting at Saqqara, a famous site south of Cairo that is home to Egypt's first stone pyramid and hundreds of tombs spanning three thousand years of the country's deep cultural history.

"The potential for damage is far more extreme than in Afghanistan and Iraq," two other countries that sustained looting of artifacts during the ongoing wars there, said Fred Hiebert, an archaeology fellow with the National Geographic Society.

"Saqqara and Luxor are major tourist attractions, so there are signs pointing saying, 'Valuable antiquities here.' The whole country is a museum," he said.

While deep concern - or even panic - continues to sweep through the community Egyptologists in the United States, Zahi Hawass, secretary general of Egypt's Supreme Council on Antiquities, said Sunday that, "Nothing is stolen from the Cairo museum." He is now directing a team to assess the damage at Saqqara and other outlying sites where archaeological digs are ongoing.

Speaking via cell phone from Cairo, Hawass said that a few items were broken - including a statue of King Tutankhamun riding a jaguar - after looters smashed windows on the roof of the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities and descended into the building with ropes Friday night. He added that all of the broken artifacts could be restored.

However, he said it was unclear what was happening at the scores of outlying sites where archaeological digs are ongoing. He also described how close the main museum came to being overrun.

On Friday, after protests erupted, the Cairo museum was not well guarded, Hawass said. About a thousand people hopped a wall and flooded into the museum's courtyard. Looters then broke into the museum's new gift shop and stole all of the jewelry.

Hemmed in by a strict curfew, Hawass spent the night at home fretting about the fate of his country's treasures.

"Of course I was so worried," he said. "I have been protecting antiquities all my life. I felt if the Cairo museum is robbed, Egypt will never be able to get up again."

Early Saturday, Hawass fought the mobs to reach the museum. He gathered students and others protesting in the streets and rallied them to the building in central Cairo. When Hawass and his ad hoc "committee" arrived around noon on Saturday, they discovered the keys to the museum had been stolen.

After an hour, Hawass was able to break in and quickly assess the damage. About 100 artifacts had been broken, but "none were really precious," he said.

Hawass discovered that three "tourist police" who had stayed at the museum throughout the night had caught and bound one of the nine looters who had smashed through the roof.

"I saw his face, and he looked like an outlaw," Hawass said.

The looters, who Hawass believes were searching for gold, smashed 13 showcases on the museum's top floor, then entered the famous King Tutankhamun galleries, where they broke several more artifacts, including the jaguar statue.

Hawass said he is still trying to assess damage to sites outside of Cairo. He added that inspectors working for the Supreme Council on Antiquities reported attempted break-ins at several other museums in the country, including the Coptic Museum, the Royal Jewelery Museum, the National Museum of Alexandria, and El Manial Museum. Hawass said none of the attempts were successful.

Hawass expressed deep gratitude toward the protesters who helped protect the Cairo museum Saturday. "They stood beside me. They know this museum is their cultural heritage. This could have been the blackest day of my life, but thank God, we are protecting the sites."

Nonetheless, Egypt specialists in the United States are working hard to learn what sites might be damaged or endangered. Sarah Parcak, an Egyptologist at the University of Alabama-Birmingham, said, "We're all very concerned about the level of looting and where it might be taking place."

"I would be very surprised if looting were not going on" at Saqqara and other outlying sites, said Brian Rose, professor of archaeology at the University of Pennsylvania and immediate past president of the Archaeological Institute of America. Rose implored the United States Department of Homeland Security to be on the lookout for Egyptian antiquities as looters try to smuggle them into the U.S., as happened with many Afghan artifacts that were stolen from that country after the 1979 invasion by the Soviet Union.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company