Egyptian antiquities chief reports damage but no theft at Cairo museum

Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 31, 2011

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

Officials in Egypt and American Egyptologists said they were worried, however, about reports of ongoing looting at Saqqara, an important site south of Cairo that is home to Egypt's first stone pyramid and hundreds of tombs spanning 3,000 years of the country's deep cultural history.

"The potential for damage is far more extreme than in Afghanistan and Iraq," said Fred Hiebert, an archaeology fellow with the National Geographic Society. Both of those countries have experienced looting of artifacts during ongoing wars.

"Saqqara and Luxor are major tourist attractions, so there are signs pointing [and] saying, 'Valuable antiquities here,' " Hiebert said.

Zahi Hawass, secretary general of Egypt's Supreme Council on Antiquities, said Sunday that "nothing is stolen from the Cairo museum."

Speaking by phone from Cairo, Hawass said that a few items were broken - including a statue of King Tutankhamen riding a jaguar - after looters smashed windows on the roof of the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities and used ropes to descend into the building Friday night. All of the broken artifacts can be restored, he said.

He also described how close the museum came to being overrun.

'I was so worried'

On Friday, after protests erupted, the Cairo museum was not well guarded, Hawass said. Looters broke into the museum's new gift shop and stole the jewelry. Restricted by a curfew, Hawass spent the night at home, fretting about the fate of his country's treasures.

"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 made his way through the crowds to reach the museum. He gathered students and others protesting in the streets and rallied them to the building in central Cairo.

Other break-ins

Although the keys to the museum had been stolen, Hawass was able to break in and assess the situation. About 100 artifacts had been broken, but "none were really precious," he said. Hawass discovered that three museum "tourist police" who had stayed overnight had apprehended one of the nine looters who had entered through the roof.

The looters smashed 13 showcases on the museum's top floor and entered the Tut galleries, where they broke several more artifacts, including the jaguar statue. Hawass said he thinks the thieves were looking for gold.

He said that inspectors working for the antiquities council reported attempted break-ins at several other sites including the Coptic Museum, the Royal Jewelry Museum, the National Museum of Alexandria and El Manial Museum. None of the vandals gained access, Hawass said.

He expressed gratitude for 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."

Making assessments

Nonetheless, Americans who study ancient Egypt are trying to determine what sites might be damaged or threatened.

Sarah Parcak, an Egyptologist at the University of Alabama at 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 Department of Homeland Security to watch for Egyptian antiquities that looters might try to smuggle into the United States, as happened with Afghan artifacts that were stolen after the 1979 Soviet invasion.

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